Thursday, June 5, 2014

Two Out of Three Ain't Bad (Belmont Stakes Preview)

To paraphrase Meatloaf:

We want you,
We need you,
But -- there ain't no way I'm ever going to bet you.
Now don't be sad,
Cause two out of three ain't bad.

I haven't picked a Kentucky Derby Preakness Belmont Stakes winner since Smarty Jones ever.  The last horse I thought had a legitimate shot at the Triple Crown was Smarty Jones, and we all remember how that played out.  Belmont is not a track I regularly play and generally don't have a good feel for, but with history on the line I am compelled to take a look and voice my opinion...  especially since "Nasalstripgate" has been resolved and the NY Stewards have allowed California Chrome to wear his nasal strip (which amazingly started his current 6 race win streak).

I think part of everyone, including myself, is pulling for California Chrome to provide that elusive Triple Crown winner that we have all been waiting and wanting for (even longer than the NY Rangers making it back to the Stanley Cup Finals).  The sport needs a Triple Crown winner and California Chrome is a feel good story from his breeding, to his owners, and to his trainer.  It is hard not to like this horse and his connections.  However, he will offer no value on Saturday and is vulnerable against this field of generally well rested foes.

My quick and dirty thoughts on this one:

California Chrome will need to avoid being pressured into running something other than his race here - whether he controls it on the front end of has to rate mid-pack.  I expect to see Samraat and Tonalist near the lead early setting a rather quick early pace.  As the early pace starts to fade, California Chrome will stay on with the late surge by Wicked Strong, Ride On Curlin, and Commanding Curve.  Ride on Curlin comes up short as he bounces off of his last big effort - even with the switch to Velazquez in the irons.  Tonalist may hang around late into the stretch as he starts to tire.  The other late runners seem to lack the class to contend here despite fairly strong pedigrees suggesting they have some stamina, such as Matuszak.  Commissioner has yet to prove to me that he belongs in graded stakes company with his best work in the slop over this course (and the current forecast looks to be a gorgeous day).  Medal Count appears to prefer the polytrack, Matterhorn has the breeding, but hasn't shown much else yet.  General A Rod hasn't had the chance to show anything in the Derby or Preakness having been taken up, but may be an early factor on the pace before the distance does him in.

My picks, in preference order:
9 Wicked Strong (6-1) - troubled trip and bad post in the Derby and still managed to get up late; top choice but not by much
4 Commanding Curve (15-1) - big 8 wide move in the Derby and a troubled trip with a strong close in the Louisiana Derby - is sharp with 5 weeks off and can handle this distance
2 California Chrome (3-5) - great horse, but extra distance and early pace here will be his demise
11 Tonalist (8-1) - bred for the distance, solid connections, but think the early pace here is too fast for him to sustain
6 Matuszak (30-1) - three straight troubled trips, can get the distance, but has yet to prove any kind of class - exotics only if you want to go deep in a trifecta or superfecta

I don't expect to play anything here since my confidence level is low on this race.

If I am wrong and California Chrome wins for fun - I will ask my management if I can start wearing the same nasal strips to work...

Good luck all!

Thursday, May 15, 2014

The Battle of Baltimore

"It was a glorious and imposing spectacle to behold these noble ships standing up the vast bay of the Chesapeake, into the very heart of America; manned, too, with eager souls, panting for fame..." - Robert Barrett, Naval Recollections of the Late American War, 1843 (Barrett was a British midshipman serving aboard the British frigate Herbrus which took part in the bombardment)

Will California Chrome withstand the efforts of the other nine horses that are gunning for fame by beating him like Fort McHenry and the rest of Baltimore withstood the British onslaught during the War of 1812?

Do I want to see a Triple Crown winner?  Yes.  Do I think the industry needs a Triple Crown winner?  Yes.  Do I think it will be California Chrome?  No.  I admit that some small part of me WANTS him to pull it off, but the realistic side of me can't rationalize it - not at Pimlico, and definitely not at Belmont.

I am not going to jump on the band wagon and bash the win by California Chrome in the Kentucky Derby.  He ran the race he had to run to win with something left in the tank for the Preakness.  So what if it was a low Beyer figure for a Derby win - it was better than 18 other horses posted!  There have been enough theories about wind, footing, and the general demise of thoroughbred racing/breeding, but the fact remains that California Chrome ran his race and won, with some help (troubled trips for Wicked Strong and others), while maintaining my o-fer streak of not picking a Derby winner since Smarty Jones.  There is always next year, right???

I boycotted Churchill and it cost me - I had the four horses that made up the superfecta and instead of doing my annual $1 box on my top four, I opted to pass... do not pass "Go" and do not collect $7,691.  Small consolation being that my old college roommate did play a trifecta box on those four horses and returned a tidy $1,712 plus a nice show bet on Commanding Curve.  Beers are on Mike next time I see him!

As a bettor it is understandably difficult to get excited for the Preakness each year.  An increasing number of the Derby entrants seem to defect from the second leg with each passing year - leaving only California Chrome, Ride On Curlin, and General a Rod as the lone three Derby horses making the trip to Baltimore this year.  The wrong horse out of the Kentucky Oaks is running here, Ria Antonia who pulled Calvin Borel off of Ride On Curlin (Untapable would have likely made this a more exciting race).  Lastly, off of that Derby win, California Chrome offers no value at 3-5 in a race that should set up again well for him.

Pace - Expect Bayern, Pablo Del Monte, and Social Inclusion to rush out and set a moderate +/-47.0 opening half mile (setting up very similar to the Derby).  California Chrome, Dynamic Impact, Ring Weekend, General a Rod and Ride On Curlin should be sitting comfortably within about 3 lengths of the leaders for most of the race.  Kid Cruz will be bringing up the rear trying to muster a late rally.  I am not expecting much out of Ria Antonia at all here.  Before the far turn, expect the trio early speed to be running out of gas - General a Rod will be flat as will Ring Weekend.  I expect the late runs to be made here by California Chrome, Dynamic Impact, and Ride On Curlin (although I am still suspect of his ability around two turns).  Kid Cruz will mount a small run late, maybe finding his way into your superfecta or trifecta; but it will really come down to California Chrome and Dynamic Impact.  Dynamic Impact has the breeding (Tiznow and Smart Strike as his dam sire) to go much further and I think that this will be his edge in the closing moments of a close race.

My top four in finish order preference:
1 Dynamic Impact (12-1) - fresh legs and pedigree prevail
3 California Chrome (3-5) - valiant effort, well timed moves, but just short
10 Ride On Curlin (10-1) - moving late, but not sold he is good enough to win at two turns
7 Kid Cruz (20-1) - late rally gets him a share here

I'll be watching the tote and just may throw a few bucks on a box this time!

Good luck all!

Friday, May 2, 2014

Conflicted in Kentucky

"The harder the conflict, the more glorious the triumph." - Thomas Paine

I haven't picked the Derby winner since Smarty Jones.  Every year, I put aside my bread and butter tracks and look at the race that makes 'everyone a racing fan for a day', however this year just doesn't feel the same.

I love this sport and am passionate about my handicapping and wagering.  I love the thrill of the 3 year old season as major preps and upsets abound - even if these are races I stay away from with my betting.  I think we have all gotten past the initial buzz of PETA/Asmussen but with Churchill's increased take out - enough is enough.  Many of racing social media crowd have called for a boycott, and as recent numbers have shown, handle is down so far this meet (I am reading reports that say between 13% - 14% through yesterday).

This leaves me conflicted.  As a horseplayer I care about my bankroll, but I also care that the horsemen and all those on the backside can make a living.

Just like the situation here in Jersey, Churchill suffers from not having other gaming at the track to pull funds (could be a different blog entirely), but trying to squeeze blood from a stone is not the answer.  Horseplayers are making their voices heard via their wallets - they have had enough of seeing less and less of their money returned.

Does raising the takeout really work?  Another fine piece of work by Lenny Moon at Equinometry points out how this may actually hurt them further by paralleling California's take out percentages in his recent post Churchill Downs Takeout Increase:  A Futile Effort to Resurrect a Once Great Track.

Not that much of my bankroll is ever bet on Churchill, but this year they won't see any of it.  However, this hasn't stopped me from handicapping the Derby, which is as tough of a field as usual.

20 Wicked Strong (8-1) - As usual, there will be a hot early pace which will knock out a group of early speedsters.  The outside post won't hurt now that fireball Pablo Del Monte has scratched and he should be able to tuck nicely into the pack hitting the first turn.  He is bred for this distance (or further) and will have gas in the tank late when the leaders fold in the stretch.

4 Danza (10-1) - Not much in the PP's to go on here, but Bravo got him up late on his first test around two turns in the Arkansas Derby.  Running style suggests a late move if he doesn't get shuffled back early with the mad rush to the rail.

5 California Chrome (5-2) - I doubted him in the San Felipe and was proven wrong.  Not really bred for the distance, but has just been the best horse on the left coast all season long - beating a solid field in the Santa Anita Derby - by 5-1/4 lengths!  He'll be running late, but that last furlong may do him in...

17 Commanding Curve (50-1) - My outside pick for the bottom of the superfecta.  Bred a little short of the distance, but did recover from some trouble early to get up for show in the Louisiana Derby.  The bottom spots are always a crap shoot, but this one should also been making forward progress late.

No suggested wagers since I will simply we watching this one as I sip a cold refreshing beverage from home.

Good luck all!

Friday, February 7, 2014

Beast Mode!

"Be relentless and then you'll break through." - Julie Brown

We can learn a lot from watching our kids.  Last Thursday night, my oldest son came home from karate and stood there silently moving his lips and arms as if he was talking.  I asked him what he was trying to say, he kept mouthing something back to me in a bit of a fury, to which I again asked him to speak and tell me what it was.  He stood there more animated but silently mouthing words to me in an even more furious manor.  Not knowing what else to do, I pretended to raise a remote control, press a button, and said "I just unmuted you."  Finally, my son said, "Thanks, I was stuck in mute mode and couldn't turn it off."  Fast forward to the Super Bowl and as we sat on the couch in the family room to watch the game, he saw Marshawn Lynch on the television and turned to me grinning and said, "I wonder when he is going to turn on Beast Mode", while pretending to press a button on the remote control as I had done just a few nights before.

I wish it was really just that easy.  Imagine that you could just click a button and go into "Beast Mode" at work, while tackling an overwhelming home improvement project, or (in my case) while handicapping or betting at the track.  In Lynch's case, his continued healthy and consistent play this year was in part due to incorporating MMA training into his routine and breaking old habits that ultimately improved his strength, core, form, and his reflexes.

Between the lousy Jersey weather and a minor medical procedure last week, I have had the opportunity to spend more than my usual amount of time handicapping over the last week, reviewing results, and revisiting data I have collected.  I have continued to validate many parts of my approach and analysis, but have found a few habits, much like Marshawn Lynch, that I need to break.

After mulling over my live and mock trials at tour events (similar in format to the SSC Series at Monmouth) - one glaring result that I noticed was lack of endurance.  I think it is difficult for any handicapper who works a day job (bills don't pay themselves!) to be focused enough to scour upwards of 30 races to find a handful they really like and few they are willing to take a shot at.  Most of my best and consistent plays happened in the first half of what I handicapped - showing either a lack of focus or lack of enthusiasm late.  How does this get remedied?  First off, I am being more physically active this year so the fatigue of working should be less of a factor as I have found that I have more energy and ability to stay focused.  Second, I have renewed my commitment to winning and my motivation is at an all time high (with recent results that continue to build my confidence).  Lastly, I am making mentally stimulating tasks a higher priority in some of my downtime - reading more insightful and thought provoking books, mastering optimal strategy in several casino games that I haven't thought about before, and playing more 'thinking' games to help clear my mind (getting back into chess, Soduku, etc.).

Watch out at Monmouth Park on March 15th - Jersey Capper will be in Beast Mode for SSC #3!!!
This week's feature race is 11th Race at Gulfstream on Saturday, the Gulfstream Park Sprint Stakes G3 (7f for 4yo&up).

Overall, there does not appear to be any true front runner and I have come up with two slightly different pace models that yield similar results.  Based on class alone, the 1 Laugh Track (5-2) and 10 Singanothersong (5-1) seem to have an edge with the defending winner of the 2013 running of the same race 8 Fort Loudon (15-1) also showing some back class, but still short of the first two.   Only issue with 1 Laugh Track (5-2) is that he has yet to win on the dirt, but ran a game second in the Breeder's Cup Sprint G1 last November).  The wildcard for me here is the 9 Catron (3-1) who is untested in class and has only made two starts, yet did exit a solid N1X race last out in December with an easy win over two that came back to win next out.  6 Brujo de Oileros (5-1) is intriguing when looking back at the minor stakes runner up effort at Parx and the one turn second at Belmont in the Kelso G2.

Scenario #1 plays out with no one really wanting to take the lead early and 10 Singanothersong (5-1) getting out on the lead and going wire to wire

Scenario #2 has one of the field bolting to the front and forcing a faster pace than what many here are comfortable with.  In this case, look for 10 Singanothersong (5-1) to rate close to that runner, 1 Laugh Track (5-2) to set up a late move, 9 Catron (3-1) will likely be close throughout, and 6 Brujo de Oileros (5-1) will also be moving late.  I'd expect 2 Jackson Bend (6-1) to also be on the move here, but is really only in play for the bottom of exotics.

Confidence Level:  2/5 (still many variables that can change the make-up of this race)
Top Selection:  10 Singanothersong (5-1)
Contenders: 1 Laugh Track (5-2), 6 Brujo de Oileros (5-1), 9 Catron (3-1), 10 Singanothersong (5-1)
Others (factor in exotics):  2 Jackson Bend (6-1)

Good luck all!

Friday, January 31, 2014

Demands & Balance (and Preview of the Arcadia G2)

"There's always more demands than there's time to meet them, so it's constantly a matter of trying to balance them." - Marc Andreessen

Happy (belated) New Year!  It has been a while since I blogged last. I had been ready to post a "Resolutions" themed blog, but then it hit me - it would once again be more words than action.  Seriously, how many people honestly stick to resolutions every year?  If we did, would we really need to keep making them?  Why do we set unattainable goals for ourselves only to lose interest in the first few weeks of the year?  Instead, this year, I am making changes and am working to keep everything in balance.

Our lives are never the same each year and we must adapt to the dynamic nature of our lives.  I have made commitments to myself this year to continue to be healthier by working out more and harder (getting up an extra 20 minutes early to really kick it in the ass every morning); by improving my diet more (cutting down on the empty calories even more); be a better role model for my kids; a better and more supportive husband to my wife (as she has her own more pressing demands to attack); trying to have a more positive and 'live in the moment' attitude (less stress); and focus on what is good in my life and eliminate the things that drag me down.  Changing my attitude or approach to all of the above creates the need to seek a balance of all the demands each of these brings and there are only only so many hours in a day.

The demands in life are always changing between work, family, friends, community, and personal growth - finding balance is never easy.  Over the last few weeks my focus has been less on racing and more on other aspects of life. While I have the Monmouth SSC and Favorite's contests on my radar, I have been working on a few other 'pet projects' which needed a kick start, spending more time with my family, getting healthier, and focusing on being more successful at my 'day job' - all of which have gladly come at the temporary expense of my handicapping.

So here I sit on a Friday afternoon - ready to pounce back in with two feet as the Public Handicapper Prep contest starts this weekend and I did even manage to look at the Saturday Aqueduct card in preparation for the tracks the SSC will feature.  I approach this with a renewed enthusiasm this year - this is the year where I make positive strides in the contest setting as I work to rebuild the confidence of my handicapping after taking some time away from it.

Back to the action....

Santa Anita - Race 8 - 1 mi TURF - Arcadia - G2 - 4yo&up

Most likely, the early pace here won't hold up as I expect 9 Winning Prize (3-1) to bolt out early and find some pressure from 10 No Jet Lag (5-1), 7 Tom's Tribute (6-1), and 5 Regally Ready (5-1).  I expect the #7 to fade away from the pack by the stretch, but expect to see 8 Suggestive Boy (7-2) making a solid run late.  Alternate pace models have #9 holding on by a thread late and #5 handling an early duel and the step up in class.

My most likely contender here is 8 Suggestive Boy (7-2).  The layoff doesn't scare me - he has a solid work pattern coming back after almost 11 months off and has been sharp off the bench before.  Normally I would question a G1 winner out of Argentina, but he does appear to be the class of the field being the most consistent over the grass in stakes company (toss the BC Mile - did anyone really think he would beat Wise Dan???).  All of his wins are against a fast pace at this distance and I expect him to be a repeat winner of this race on Saturday.

Based on my analysis, I would go with a win bet on #8 and maybe throw a small exacta on 5,8 - 5,8,9,10 if the payouts look decent.

Good luck to all!