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Allen Jerkens earned his nickname the “giant killer”. He took down the favorites that everyone thought were invincible. He understood that getting your horse to peak on the very day of the race meant that you had a shot at the win even if your horse was five lengths inferior. So, it is only fitting that the race at Gulstream Park named in his honor be a battle of wits and “hyper-peaking” between some of the best trainers our sport has.
Let’s face it, no North American horse wants to go 16 panels. So, the question becomes which horse has been conditioned over the last ninety days to tolerate it the best?
At first glance, Buck Benny looks like a tired horse who would be better off being used as a rabbit for Tattenham. Upon further inspection, Tattenham will probably be the one Motion uses to keep the field honest and Buck Benny will probably sit four or five off the lead. Though Buck Benny has run recently, I think that was really Graham Motion trying to get in a paid workout for Buck so that he can handle this race. Now, there is no need to be pedigree obsessed when we know for a fact that Buck doesn’t want any part of twelve furlongs, but he is bred on the same cross as Barbaro. Overall, I would say he has an excellent shot if he gets first run on the leader.
Class always seems to carry on turf. A horse can run fourth or fifth in grade three races constantly and somehow spank a horse who routinely wins allowance races. The reason for that is many and nuanced, but a large part of it probably has to do with the fact that turf races are very visually deceiving and final 3 furlong times are not posted in major racing publications. This is why Unitarian is even more impressive than he already looks. We know that Pletcher; who happens to be an incredibly underrated turf route trainer, will have him ready. When you add to this the immense gulf in class, it’s hard to make a case for any other horse other than Buck Benny to have a shot to beat him.
The Play: Why try to decide between these two when you can play an exacta box. I would also play a win bet on both of these horses to cover my bases. Anything can happen, but Buck Benny and Unitarian are the class of this race.
I’ll come right out and say it, no one can handicap every type of race. Obviously, there are many types of races, but for the sake of simplicity we’ll brake down all races by two factors: surface and distance. For distance, I would divide races by those that are less than 8 furlongs and those that are greater than or equal to 8 furlongs. I would also put Maiden Special Weights in its own category.
The problem we as handicappers face is that we don’t realize how specialized we are. We are not that different from the jockeys and trainers we applaud and criticize. Just like Cristophe Clement is a genius at turf and dirt routes, and no one knows Juveniles like Linda Rice, you have your own specialty as a handicapper. Identifying it is the key to success.
For some reason, I can visualize a dirt route better than any other type of race. I’ve always had a good record and ROI in dirt routes, but I hate turf. I think that lot of turf has to do with class, rather than pace scenario and the amount of lengths that a horse was beaten. In a turf race, a margin of defeat of three turf lengths is roughly equivalent to a margin of defeat of 7.5 dirt lengths. Now, add to that the fact that the beaten horse may have had traffic trouble, a bad post position or trouble navigating the turns, and you see how convoluted turf handicapping can get. Basically, did the jock lose or did the horse? I also have a tendency to play speed, and we all know how well that transfers to turf. I’ll also say that as a more “numbers” based handicapper, I tend to stay away from Maiden Special Weights. I’ve seen War Fronts lose by ten lengths making their dirt debut; Maiden Special Weights are all about reading workouts, and that is not my strength.
My worst pick of the year was Tom’s Tribute in the Breeder’s Cup Mile. My best pick was either V.E. Day in the Travers or Toast of New York in the Classic; what a surprise. I was fooled by Tom’s Tribute’s impressive wins and didn’t factor in the lack of class as much as I should have. With V.E. Day and Toast of New York, they were both 10 furlong horses who were training extremely well leading up to their respective big races. I knew that they both scored really well across the major metrics in the Thoroughbred Analytics Premium Past Performances report. Taking all of this into consideration, those picks were kind of like shooting fish in the proverbial barrel. With the Breeder’s Cup Mile no horse really jumped out at me. I thought Toronado was good and Tom’s Tribute likes California, but I couldn’t visualize the race. I made a “blind pick” and I got what I deserved.
My advice to any and all handicappers would be to play 40 races of each type and record your ROI. Look at the data and figure out what type of handicapper you truly are. After you do this, the hard part comes. You must then have the discipline to sit out the races that play away from your strengths and towards your weaknesses. If you come to realize that you are a dirt route handicapper, this won’t be easy. You’ll be sitting out many a race. Tracks like Canterbury Park and Portland Meadows become virtually unplayable, but this is the only way you stand a chance out there.
So, lets take a page out of Cristophe Clement’s book and stick to the type of race we know; we’ll all be happier people for it. After you do your 40 race analysis, feel free to send it to me via e-mail. I love to see handicappers progress in this game and would love to learn more about the handicapping styles of my readers.
If you’re not first you’re last! - Will Ferrel
The quote above was from a Dale Earnheardt type character played for comedic effect by Will Ferrel, but many in our industry feel this way. How many people can remember who finished second in the 2009 Kentucky Derby? Some will, but that’s only because he is now making a name for himself at stud. So, I started thinking about second place and what it means in racing. Can finishing second ever be honorable? I think that it can be honarable if the horse who finished second had no right even being in the same starting gate as the horses he competed against. Here are three horses who earned my respect simply by giving all they had to finish second.
1995 Pimlico Preakness
Horses for courses is one of the truest adages in all of racing and it was on full display at the 1995 Preakness. Oliver’s Twist had just won the Federico Tesio over the Pimlico course and so his connections thought he might have a shot in the Preakness. Like the downhill turf course at Santa Anita, you either love Pimlico dirt or you hate it. Oliver’s Twist clearly loved it as he beat every single horse in the field except for Timber Country.
2005 Kentucky Derby
I know that the pace was quite ridiculous that day and even a maiden claimer could have sat off of the pace and got show. Still, Closing Argument was a glorified allowance horse who still had to pass 18 very talented horses to earn his paycheck that day, and he did just that. If there was anything that this derby taught us it’s that in the modern era, closing horses with good jockeys are always dangerous. Look at the last four Kentucky Derbies. The speed simply did not hold up. Yes, a stalker won this year but Commanding Curve finsihed second. The Derby is becoming a closer’s race.
2007 Travers Stakes
Horses are the most optimistic athlethes by virtue of not knowing how overmatched they truly are. I still get chills watching this race. How on earth did Grasshopper stay with Street Sense for so long? Yes the pace didn’t set up for Street Sense and Calvin, but they still should’ve cruised to a four length victory. Instead, they wound up locked in a battle with the most game allowance horse since Boom Towner (An old grumpy horse who used to race on the NYRA circuit). Unfortunatley, Grasshopper was never the same after that race. However, that valiant stand against Street Sense at the graveyard of favorites earned him a future as a stallion. Not bad for two minutes of work.
If you have any other great place finishes that stand out in your memory, feel free to shoot me an email or reply on twitter to @TAnalytic
2014 was quite the year for horse racing. The superstar horses proved they could actually show up – who knew? The three biggest superstars in training – Bayern, California Chrom,e and Shared Belief combined for a total of 25 starts. So, which races were the most meaningful and which ones were the most enjoyable?
I’ll start off with this; I did not choose any of Main Sequences races because he frankly doesn’t capture the imagination of the general racing public. I’m actually starting to think that the general racing public doesn’t even consider him to be an American horse, but I digress.
The five races chosen all had starpower, and with the excpetion of the one in the fifth spot, lived up to the hype.
5. Breeder’s Cup Classic:
This race did not fail to disappoint thanks to Martin Garcia channeling his inner Angel Cordero Jr. One has to respect the grittiness of Bayern to hold off two of the best horses in the country. However, one has to wonder how the race would’ve been affected had Moreno been able to put more pressure on Bayern. I will not fault Martin for his Cordero impersonation; after all, look how well it worked out for Angel Cordero Jr. However, it did sour what could have been the most exciting Breeder’s Cup Classic of the last ten years. It also rendered Horse of the Year voting irrelevant in my opinion, because we still cannot definitively say that Shared Belief, Chrome, or Toast of New York are worse than Bayern at 10 furlongs. Maybe Bayern is better, but maybe Martin Garcia is just a better more aggressive jockey than his counterparts, we really don’t know for sure.
4. San Felipe Stakes:
Most east coast racing fans will disagree, but California Chrome tends to run in some deceptively difficult races. He isn’t really comfortable in the lead, and he definitely isn’t comfortable inside of horses. He had to do both of these things to win the San Felipe, and he made them both look easy. This race could have ended badly for California Chrome, but the modestly bred horse showed us that while he isn’t the second coming of Sunday Silence, he can handle some adversity.
3. Frontrunner Stakes:
Maybe I’m just seeing things that aren’t there, but American Pharoah and Texas Red are seriously talented racehorses. In the Frontrunner, American Pharoah showed that if he’s given reasonable fractions he is simply the best juvenile in America. AP’s performance in the race was flattered by Texas Red demoliting the Breeder’s Cup Juvenile field. If American Pharoah and Texas Red can stay healthy and fire on all cylinders at the Derby (a very big if) the 2015 derby will be one for the ages.
2. Awesome Again Stakes:
In one of the oddest incidents all year, Victor Espinoza carried Shared Belief wide around both turns. Now, I do think that Shared Belief fans greatly exaggerted the heroics displayed by their beloved equine hero in overcoming his rough trip, but the race really underscored just how dogged Shared Belief actually is. This race also gave Shared Belief a whole new dimension as he learned what it’s like to have to work inside the eight-pole. Shared Belief started his transformation in this race and 2015 will be an interesting year because of this.
1. Kentucky Derby:
There is no horse that gets racing fans more riled up than California Chrome. If the wagering for the Derby was only open to residents of California, Chrome would have gone off at 3/5. Let’s just say that east coast bettors were a little less sure about Chrome’s chances. The racing establishment spent all week looking for “wiseguy” picks only to be proven wrong. I have to admit that I picked him for third as I didn’t feel he had enough staying power to hold off Wicked Strong or Chitu; boy was I wrong. I am not for Chrome, nor am I against him. All I am saying is that he is the most divisive horse in America right now, bar none, so the race in which he silenced his haters has to be the most important race of 2014.
Class is the most important factor when evaluating a turf horse.
A more obvious sentence has probably never been uttered on the internet. Well, if the importance of class when handicapping turf is so important, then why are most people such terrible turf handicappers?
I think most people are set in their ways. Even if they aren’t, they fail to realize how to make the data truly work for them. A turf race is basically a test of how well a horse can run from the three-eighths pole to the wire. Lure, Wise Dan, Frankel and even Secreatriat all won the same exact way. So, if we can agree that the running of a turf race is much less nuanced than the running of a dirt race, why can’t we handicap dirt races?
I like watching people handicap a card. I never tell them that I’m Jameel from Thoroughbred Analytics because I don’t want to ruin the fun. I want them to handicap like they normally do. After having done this several times, I’ve noticed a few things. First; most handicappers think the pace scenario is equally important in turf as well as dirt. Second; the majority of people think that post position is equally important. Third; the true class of a horse is an afterthought for most handicappers.
Basically, most handicappers don’t switch up their style when going from dirt to turf. They’ll complain about a jockey who rides turf like he does dirt, but they think that it’s okay for them to handicap turf the way they handicap dirt. In a dirt race, a horse can be three lengths better than the competition and lose because of a disadvantageous pace scenario; the same will never be true for turf. I once had an 8-1 shot go ¾ in 1:14.5 in a ten furlong race over a firm turf course and still get gobbled up. It was an aha moment for me to rely on “true class” rather than an advantageous pace scenario.
So, how do I define “true class”? I take the TA Class rating of a horse and times it by two. I then take the TA Speed Rating of that horse and add it all up and divide by three. So, a horse with a class rating of 100.0 and a speed rating of 85.0 would have a “true class” rating of 95.0 ((100+100+85)/3).
Now, do this mean that you pick the horse with the highest true class rating everytime? I would not. However, I would eliminate any horse who’s true class rating isn’t competitve with the top horse’s rating. I would also play close attention to the horse with the top rating, as he will most likely be in the money regardless of the pace scenario.
Here is the important part: In order to get a “true class” rating, the horse needs to have run primarily on the turf and have made a minimum of two starts.
I’ll be handicapping several turf races this weekend and tweeting about horses who’s odds are way higher than their “true-class” would suggest. If you’re on Twitter, feel free to follow along.
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