Monday, April 28, 2014


--Christina Bossinakis  
    As some of you may have already noticed, I spent the first couple of weeks in April in Australia to cover the Inglis Easter Yearling sale and the inaugural running of The Championships in Sydney. Oh yeah, I also spent a few days in between enjoying the country. (For those of you who have not had the chance to visit Australia yet, I highly recommend it.) While I will dedicate another blog in its entirety to The Championships, I wanted to take a moment to outline my latest experiences at the Australian sales.

    Naturally, following some unfavorable press encountered by the American 2-year-old market early this month, the issue of the sturdiness of our stock became a regular topic of discussion between myself and several international players during my time in Oz. Is North American stock even bred to withstand the rigors of training and racing anymore? I pondered this question from a very basic level. Over the course of the last few years, I had the privilege of looking at yearlings with arguably one of the best American bloodstock agents in our game, Buzz Chace. He taught me about many aspects in assessing the finer points of young horses. On countless occasions, he would point out an individual with ‘good bone’, and while I thought I understood what that meant, I recently began to doubt my ability to identify it. More often than not of late (truthfully, it was far more a question of not), it seemed that most horses lacked significant bone, both at the sales and racetrack. That is, until I had a look at the yearlings in Australia. It’s like they’re a different breed down there. The reality is, American horses are vastly more athletic and racier, and they are certainly more refined than the type of athlete I saw Down Under. Interestingly enough, a couple of well-respected American interests marked their debuts at this year’s Inglis Easter Yearling sale –B. Wayne Hughes (accompanied by Spendthrift General Manager Ned Toffey) and John Moynihan (advisor to Barbara Banke’s Stonestreet)–and both camps commented on the local yearlings differing physical structure to our native Thoroughbreds. The consensus was the Australian yearlings looked a lot more consistent (not as much variation between individuals), very significant bone (they look like cannons as compared to what we’re used to seeing) and lower to the ground than American yearlings. If one was tempted to think that the Australian contingent might not be as fast or early as their American counterparts, think again. After all, many of the biggest and most lucrative races in Australia remain the juvenile races (think G1 Golden Slipper and Magic Millions series in January).

    I also had the chance to speak to a few Australasian-based 2-year-old consignors (Australia and New Zealand) and everyone was pretty much in agreement that the goal is to develop fast and early horses to take advantage of 2-year-old racing program in those countries (their horses really do look like tanks). However, the juvenile sales are considered merely a stage in the progression to the racetrack; a source of unfinished gems that need to be polished. I was told time and time again, breeze times are just not that important–certainly not as it seems to be in the U.S.--in many sales overseas.

    One thing I will add to the topic of American versus Australasian stock: In recent years, a handful of astute agents have purchased American mares in the U.S. and bred them to Australian stallions and they have enjoyed significant success both in the sales ring and on the racetrack. International bloodstock advisor James Bester is one of those agents that comes quickly to mind, having previously secured a handful of U.S. stakes-winning mares on behalf of Kia-Ora Stud. One of the most notable products of that plan is Group 2 winner and Group 1-placed Zululand (Aus) (Fastnet Rock {Aus}), who is out of Dream Play (Hennessy). Victorious of the GII Comely S., Dream Play was purchased for $460,000 at the Fasig-Tipton November sale in 2009. Zululand also proved to be a home run in the sales ring, bringing A$1.5 million at Inglis Easter in 2013. Another Australian operation to profit from the purchase of American stock is Ron Gilbert of Highgrove Stud. In 2010, Ron purchased Tears I Cry (Chester House)–in foal to Curlin--for $735,000. One year later, he sold the resulting filly for $700,000 at Keeneland September. At the Easter sale this month, he sold the yearling a half-sister by Redoute’s Choice (Aus) A$400,000. Highgrove has sold over $1-million in offspring and still owns the factory. Savvy buy.

    Looking at the flip side, it would also seem that the American connections that recently ventured down to Oz to secure a few horses--who will most likely be bred back to U.S. stock--might prove equally profitable. Having seen the stock down in Australia and the success the Australians have already enjoyed, I am inclined to believe that the reverse will be an equally complimentary match. American athleticism and Australian sturdiness looks like it should be a match made in heaven. And something else to keep in mind, while the Australian stallion roster might be have been average at best 10 years ago, now offers several top class international caliber stallions including Fastnet Rock, Redoute's Choice, in addition to up-and-coming sires Snitzel and Sebring. Only time will tell, but I certainly applaud our American peeps' courage to give it a shot. My guess is we will probably see a few more Americans make the trip down to the Australian sales before long.

Bloodstock Advisor to The Queen, John Warren, yearling shopping at Inglis Easter
CBoss Photo
Buyer Beware: Literally...
   Something that I am quickly reminded of every time I step on the sales’ grounds of any Australian sale is early handling or schooling of young horses down there (read as ‘lack thereof’). I found them to be infinitely more ‘high spirited’ than their American counterparts (a well-reputed international agent that will remain unnamed most appropriately referred to the yearlings there as ‘feral’). Admittedly, Australian-raised yearlings do not receive nearly as much pre-sale ‘management’ as do American youngsters. I was told that, in many cases, youngsters might not receive any significant handling until right before the sale. And it shows. Australians feel it’s more natural for a developing young horse to be handled sparingly, but it never ceases to amaze me how quickly one erupting yearling will ignite a chain reaction that you just don't want to be anywhere near. In fact, a few years back, I encountered a serious run in with a volatile yearling, who almost lopped my head off. Luckily, I was in the presence of a most gracious not to mention chivalrous trainer, Paul Messara, who swept to my rescue (yes, he quite literally ‘swept’ me off my feet in assistance..and believe it or not, people still ask me about it). My thought on the subject is somewhere between the system in place in the U.S. and Australia may reside the sweet spot. The issue of sales prep in Australia could really command a whole commentary of its own, but I will leave you with this one thought, if you ever make it to Australia and make your way to a Thoroughbred sale, beware. You never know when one of those young creatures will hear the sinister whispers in their heads.

Clear as Day...
   Coming from someone who has attended her fair share of horse sales all over the world, several things jumped out at me during my latest stint in Oz, including the issue of transparency. Prior to any Australian sale, the covering press is provided with the short list of the most likely top lots for each of the sessions. The goal of the Australian sales companies (Inglis and Magic Millions both provide the same courtesy) is to familiarize journalists with the ‘talking horses’, which presumably, would facilitate and expedite the media process. Makes sense, right? It is fair to assume that, if sales officials are aware of who the top offerings would be prior to any given sale, that potential buyers--after having the opportunity to view the stock--would be as well. In the U.S., sales officials would be hard pressed to shout out one particular individual or one consignment over another (trust me, I’ve asked), in fear of slighting other breeders or consignors. As I’m sure any other member of the working media that has ever covered a Thoroughbred sale can attest, all the positive press in the world will not sell a substandard individual. So, at the end of the day, does it really make a difference if we were given a loose outline of who the top offerings might be prior to the sale? I will add, that even though the Australian sales company offers the courtesy of a short list, there will inevitably be a handful of lots that jump up and catch the eye of several buyers, thus creating some unexpected fireworks. Having said that, both the press and the buyers that I spoke to seem to appreciate the openness of the system.

    Speaking of transparency, I’ve always been a big fan of the entire bidding process Australia. As is also the case in Europe (at least the sales I’ve attended), the auctioneer identifies the buyer, if there is one, immediately after a horse is sold. And if the horse has been ‘passed in’ or RNAs, it is immediately listed as such (in Oz, the board actually lists the horse as ‘PI’ seconds after it is led out). It is not unusual for several buyers to already be back at the barn mere moments after a horse has passed through the ring unsold and looking to strike a deal. At American sales, it is hard to know who has purchased a particular horse, or whether it has sold at all, at least until the ticket comes out. And even then, one has to often wait for the hard copy of the ticket to have full clarification. With years of practice, one learns how to be ahead of the curve, but for many, the process currently in place just slows things down. I was involved in a recent conversation on the matter with Spendthrift’s B. Wayne Hughes and he seemed very receptive and appreciative of the open concept. And why wouldn’t he be? The bottom line is transparency lends to expediency, and even more importantly, buyer confidence.

Fit for a King...
   One final point I’d like to make about the sales in Australia. The concept of the marquee (a receiving area generally offering food, refreshments) is one that I am very fond of. In fact, I was properly introduced to it down there and I thoroughly love it. It was recently explained to me that the marquee was borne largely through necessity, since the Australian sales pavilions are generally not equipped with functional dining rooms and cafeterias as are their American counterparts. True, though I must admit the marquees in Oz are something I always look forward to. All of the major consignments have one and I recently found out that each of them of their specialties. If you want a rocking, (home-grown) steak, you go to the Turangga marquee (not to mention you will entertained by Stuart Ramsey’s sharp wit); if you want to hang with the big hitters in style, then pass by Coolmore; if you have a hankering for cold beer and prawns the size of your hand, the Highgrove marquee is where you need to be; and last but not least, if you’re in the mood for the five-star marquee experience, then you must make a stop at Arrowfield (I promise, you will forget you are at a sale and think you are in a proper restaurant). In fact, I’d like to give Arrowfield a special thanks for letting me set up shop and offering me the space to produce much of my Inglis Easter coverage. Not to mention they kept me well fed, hydrated and caffeinated. I am most appreciative. Next time I hope to get around to a few of the other marquees I didn’t have the time to stop at this time, and if any of you ever happen to make it down for the sales, I urge you to take the time and stop by a few. Not only is the hospitality warm, they are all quite unique in their own way and they offer yet another thing that makes Australia special.

Monday, April 21, 2014

Guest Post: The Midde Way

--Christina Bossinakis

   Truthfully, my trip to Australia to cover the Easter sales and Sydney’s Championships of late has kept me very busy. In fact, so much so, that I largely lost track of what was happening back in the U.S. last couple of weeks. So, when I finally had time to catch up with what I had missed, I encountered a flurry of commentary regarding the American juvenile sales. The timing of racing’s latest hot topic was of even greater significance because of my presence in a parallel market situated on the opposite end of the world.
   Quite coincidentally, I found myself exchanging ideas with some of the locals players about the 2-year-old in training sales. Prior to last week’s Inglis Easter sale, I had the most enlightening conversation with small, but well-regarded pinhooker from New Zealand. Ironically, this conversation occurred prior to Florida horseman Ciaran Dunne’s call to stop using gallop out times during pre-sale breeze shows. For those of you who might not be familiar, New Zealand’s Breeze Up sale in Karaka is largely considered one of the premier juvenile sales venues (if not the leader) in Australasia. During the course of our chat, my New Zealand friend and I had the opportunity to discuss several differences in our respective markets, including the importance of fast final breeze times and gallop outs. He explained that the final time in which a horse completed a pre-sale breeze was not of paramount importance, but more the way it was done. Yes, in principal, that was quite right. He explained that in New Zealand, ‘anything between 10 and 11 seconds, followed by a good gallop out,’ was generally considered respectable. “11 seconds?” Really?? Found myself thinking the reality is a horse working in :11 probably wouldn’t even make it into the sale’s ring because they would in all likelihood be withdrawn. Underscoring the point, I met yet another New Zealand breeder/consignor later in my trip and he reaffirmed what the first had said. He explained most horses breeze anywhere between 10.5 and 11.5. seconds. I laughed. I thought to myself, there is little chance in hell an American juvenile will sell after going an eighth in 11.5 seconds (equipment malfunction? Rogue bird attack?? Stopped for coffee??).
   Among topics of discussion with the New Zealanders were the days when it was a significant feat for a juvenile to break the 10-second barrier for an eighth (by the way, still not all that common in New Zealand). However, given the lightening-fast track surfaces in addition to pushing horses for all-out efforts in recent times, that seems to have almost become the norm on this side of the pond. The Kiwis explained that nobody really expects for a horse to go that fast, that early (Really? We don’t?). They also pointed out, since a significant portion of the New Zealand juvenile market caters to buyers from Asia, an exacting jurisdiction in its importation policies and laws (in regards to soundness, breathing, etc), it didn’t really serve sellers to push them so fast or so early. The argument was it just doesn’t make economic sense to squeeze the lemon dry (the resounding logic was hurting my brain) and even a minor issue--that could possibly be otherwise overlooked in other markets (even though that’s not really the case, anywhere, anymore)–would be weeded out by many governing regulatory agencies (as is the case in Singapore, which has very strict importation laws on foreign stock).
   Both conversations underscored several points: chief among them, the North American market’s obsession with speed, and how it is utilized at a very young age, before a horse has had the chance to mature. It is pretty clear that even the unschooled eye has the ability to access the simplest universal barometer to scout potential talent–the stopwatch. The only problem, it would seem, is the price many pay to strut their best stuff in front of potential buyers so early in their lives.
    Having said that, I by no means think the Australasian system is superior to what we have in the U.S. In fact, I really do think we have some of the most talented, savvy and astute Thoroughbred professionals in the world, and our way of doing many things is still considered the standard among many of world’s leading racing jurisdictions. American juvenile sales have produced a significant number of high-class performers, including Grade I winner and 2013 juvenile Eclipse Award finalist Havana (Dunkirk).
   What I am saying is that change can be a very positive thing, and just as we continue to lead others by example, we should also have the ability to look at other markets and see what we could adopt in an effort to continually improve our domestic system. After all, there is our way, their way and as the Buddhists would say, the middle way. And given recent events in our industry, it seems a very good time to start exploring a few different avenues.

Thursday, April 10, 2014

Saturday Spot Plays

--Brian DiDonato

KEE 3 - Alw, 7f (AWT) - Maybe it’s crazy to expect anything close to the 8-1 morning line quote on Ghostly Wonder, but well-regarded runners Twang and Green Mask should take their fair share of action, as could Augusta Road considering The Masters is this weekend (I know it sounds crazy, but watch him take more money than you’d normally expect). Dismissed as the longest shot in field of five first out at Arlington in June, 11-1 Ghostly Wonder dueled with the well-bet favorite before leaving him in the dust for a very easy 4 1/2-length score. Now I know what you’re thinking--beating four runners at Arlington isn’t any major accomplishment. But that favorite was Spot, who took the GII Swale last month. Two others won their next starts, including last-place finisher No Surrender, who resurfaced at Hawthorne Mar. 28 to romp by 6 1/2 lengths and earn a 92 Beyer. Ghostly Wonder earned a solid 79 Beyer for his win—which stacks up well with the rest of the field, and projects out to something in the 90 to 100 range by the old rule that young horses should improve 1 1/2 to 2 points per month of development. I’m not saying Ghostly Wonder is going to run a 100, but he can run a lot slower that that and still take this. Play: Win on #2 Ghostly Wonder (8-1).

KEE 9 - GI Madison S. - Turnbacks seem to be at a huge advantage going seven furlongs on the Keeneland Poly, and there are three in here that I strongly prefer over favorite Judy the Beauty, who I think is probably best going shorter. The most obvious of the three is Better Lucky--she’s a very nice turf miler, but is two-for-four sprinting and must be included. There’s also Byrama, who I’ve always believed is a better sprinter. She was very unlucky not to win this race last year as she was blocked for most of the stretch, and she makes the same cut back from a turf mile that she did last year, albeit for new connections this time around. The third horse I’m interested in is Eden Prairie. She cut back to just miss at 10-1 in the track-and-trip Raven Run in October, and has improved her speed figures markedly in three runs on the Fair Grounds lawn since. She also has the advantage of good tactical speed. Play: Win on #7 Byrama (6-1) OR #9 Eden Prairie (10-1) (whoever is higher in relation to their morning line), exacta box with #6 Better Lucky. DDs 6,7,9 w/ 8.

KEE 10 - GI Jenny Wiley S. - Speed has done extremely well on the turf so far this meet, and there isn’t an abundance of it here. Discreet Marq already would have been formidable anyway, but now she should be doubly tough over this surface. I was particularly impressed with her runner-up finish in the GI Matriarch last time Dec. 1. That was a solid field of older runners, and she gave locally based Egg Drop all she could handle to only get beat a nose. There are certainly others you have to use in exotics, but my money’s on Discreet Marq to make the lead and never look back. Play: Win on #8 Discreet Marq (6-1).

SA 6 - Alw, 7f - This is a pretty nice group of 3-year-olds. I really thought highly of Indexical last year—I loved his work at Barretts May, and though he could only manage a fifth-place finish with some trouble on debut at Del Mar in July, he returned the following month to break his maiden at 16-1 with the addition of blinker--two spots ahead of eventual Breeders’ Cup Juvenile winner New Year’s Day. I can dismiss his close seventh after setting a slightly quick pace in the GI Del Mar Futurity, and turf route attempt when fifth last out in October’s Zuma Beach. Now he tries dirt for the first time, which seems likely to be his best surface, and should be right there with any improvement on his maiden breaker (I do worry that he’ll need a start off the bench, but the price should be right). Play: Win on #10 Indexical (12-1), exacta box with #4 Papa Turf, #8 Top Fortitude, #9 True Ten.

GP 9 - MSW, 1 1/16mT - This one’s admittedly a bit speculative, but Classy Kid will likely be an overlay in his turf debut for Mark Frostad. The 4-year-old showed early interest before fading to a distant fifth when unveiled sprinting here Feb. 28, but he never really figured to fire his best under those circumstances for a patient first-out trainer. By versatile, but usually better turf sire Lemon Drop Kid, Classy Kid is out of Grade III-winning turfer Dynamite Lass (Dynaformer), who never set foot on a main track. None of Dynamite Lass’s previous foals have been superstars, but they’ve definitely preferred routing and/or grass, and Classy Kid should follow that trend. Play: Win on #5 Classy Kid (20-1), exacta behind #1 Siete C, exacta box with #7 Knight of Valor, #8 Smart Spree, #10 Chunnel.

See Saturday's TDN for this week's installment of the Road to the Kentucky Derby Showdown with Brian and Steve Sherack's picks for the Blue Grass and Arkansas Derby. Follow Brian on twitter @BDiDonatoTDN

Monday, April 7, 2014

Guest Blog: So It's Root, Root Root for the....Best Horse?

--Drew Rauso
   While the first day of spring didn’t immediately cast off its cold winter brethren, we the people of this Polar Vortex’d winter were certainly happy to leave the icy conditions behind us.
   Suffice to say when the “real” first day of spring arrived several weeks later, just this past weekend, in the form of Major League Baseball Opening Day, there was such an overjoyed reaction that there was a petition requesting the day be made into a national holiday. “Baseball’s back!” Right?
   The sport, for decades and maybe even a century, has been this nation’s pastime. You ask Chevy, “the official vehicle of the MLB,” to make a commercial and they resurrect a 1970’s tune “Baseball, Hot Dogs, Apple Pie and Chevrolet.”

   Take that little example however you see fit, but the truth remains that baseball was revered, and that is the key word: was. Football is this country’s new national sport, and new is an understatement.
   According to the Harris Poll, a study conducted yearly to document adults’ favorite sports, the NFL attracted 35 percent of the participants to the MLB’s meager 14. This disparity hasn’t changed over the last three decades; MLB has dropped from 23 percent in 1985 to this year’s 14, with the NFL never below 24 percent.
   So, does that mean game over for all sports not centered around bashing your opponent’s head in. No, it certainly doesn’t.
   Football has its own problems to deal with, different from baseball and possibly more threatening; the sport injures people at an incredibly alarming rate. Careers last several years, not several decades, and more and more former players are diagnosed with head injuries every year. I don’t know about you, but if the President of the United States publicly stated his children will never play your sport, I would sound the alarm.
   All of which brings us to the final stretch: horse racing has a fantastic chance to make its mark on the general public of this country. First, a comparison is in order. A day at the track and a day at the ballpark are not so inherently different at the core. I know this is simplifying matters, but for argument’s sake, let it be for now.
   Being at the ballpark is as much a social gathering as anywhere else, conversation is welcomed like Sofia Vergara entering a party, and the sport provides a backdrop for a nice afternoon.
   A day game at Citi Field: the sun is shining, you may walk around outside the stadium for a while, tailgate in the parking lot before the gates open, eat food, drink beer and enjoy being outside. (Now this part is reserved for Mets fans, a not-so-elite club that I just so happen to be a part of): once the game starts, many times there is not an incredible level of attention to the game, for whatever reason, the long nature of the sport, the standstill aspect of many of the players, whatever.
   Looking at a day at the track (I am speaking on behalf of my experience, that of a casual observer frequenting the track with friends, so as to emulate what would hope to be the general public), I see many similarities.
   You are outside, with friends, eating, drinking making conversation. The sport provides the backdrop, and when the races go off, conversation is for a moment suspended, as everyone is bonded by their fascination of such majestic animals performing at an incredibly high level.
   The similarities are hard to miss, and with the positive notes there are of course negative ones as well. Baseball in all of its glory in the ‘80s and ‘90s and early 2000s was a power show, an entertainment form basking in its own gargantuan pride, with mammoth home runs left and right and players so big they looked like bodybuilders.
   Of course we now know the reason behind this dark heyday, and steroids’ ugly head is slowly getting pushed into the underworld, along with the Alex Rodriguezs, Jose Cansecos and players of today.
   The Steroid Era is a driving force in the decreasing popularity of baseball; the fans just cannot trust players anymore, and sadly, this seems to be a pattern in professional sports, i.e. Lance Armstrong and the recent PETA case.
   For horse racing to truly enter the world of most popular sports in this country again (and this goes for any sport), people need to trust the faces of the industry.
   In an effort to regain their fans’ trust, look at baseball and Bud Selig’s administration; the crackdown on players after the Biogenesis debacle is in full effect with Alex Rodriguez’s 211 game suspension, along with Ryan Braun’s 65 games and Melky Cabrera’s 50 games, among others.
   While it is yet to be seen what happens of A-Rod, there is a general level of disgust with the player and a respect for the league because it has not backed down against one of the most powerful people in the sport.
   I asked several college classmates about what they thought of Steve Asmussen’s scandal, and the resounding reply was, “Isn’t that a common occurrence?” (Needless to say this conversation took place only after I agreed to listen to The Chainsmokers’ song “#SELFIE”, which is a different and entirely more frustrating commentary on my generation, but I digress.)

   Even though the statement is clearly not true, it raises flags about public opinion of racing. While Asmussen will continue to train horses, his reputation has taken a hit, and the industry should make it a priority to keep horses clean so as to prove the “common occurrence” belief wrong.
   The parallels are obvious; so how can the horse racing industry reclaim its integrity, because without it, there is much less hope of attracting a broader audience. However, the headline, “Horse Racing Integrity Recaptured” does not lend itself to breaking news, so to grab the attention of the nation, something much more direct is needed.
   Enter Secretariat #2, a new superstar, a face of the sport that captivates millions and captures the hearts of the country. Completely aware that once-in-a-lifetime stars are exactly that, I am merely saying that through this example, in which a new darling horse breaks out into the field and serves as a headline for the sport, there is a strong possibility of enhanced awareness and popularity of racing.

   One breakout star combined with the timing of other sports’ problems, could spell success for horse racing in getting people to admire the sheer beauty of the sport, but for getting the most people to the track?
   Show off what the sport can offer besides the actual race, and a day at the track may become much more marketable, plus there’s the possibility to win money, and any young person would love that scenario.
   A final example is a tennis match.  Go to the U.S. Open, and you will find tons of sponsorship stands and tents outside the stadium with games, prizes, activities and more, all while the matches are going on.
   While the ticket is still for a tennis match, there is so much more to do, and the same can and should be applied to horse racing marketing.

Enough of my ranting, see you next week.

Thursday, April 3, 2014

Saturday Spot Plays

--Brian DiDonato

AQU 8 - GIII Bay Shore S. - I picked Financial Mogul in the GIII Gotham S. as part of the Road to the Kentucky Derby showdown, and mentioned (click here) after his even fourth-place finish that I thought he might appreciate a cut-back in distance. He gets it here, and should offer plenty of value. The dark bay romped by 5 1/2 lengths at Saratoga last time he tried seven panels, and he shows some quick works since the Gotham. I’ll also use Favorite Tale, who has crushed weaker competition at Parx in all three of his previous outings and could get a bit disrespected here; and another turn-back in The Admiral--his sprint debut and seven-furlong maiden breaker two back were both solid. I’m against favorite Kobe’s Back--he’s just way too obvious and inconsistent. Play: Win on #3 Financial Mogul (8-1), also using #6 Favorite Tale and #7 The Admiral in exotics.

AQU 11 - GI Carter H. - I love Clearly Now here. He was plagued by tough trips last season, including when finishing a very good second over track and trip 12 months ago in the Bay Shore. He showed what he could do with a better trip when he took Belmont’s GIII Bold Ruler H. with a 109 Beyer Speed Figure two back, but nearly went down after clipping heels on the turn in the GI Cigar Mile before settling for a solid fifth all things considered. Seven furlongs is probably Clearly Now’s ideal distance, and I look for him to sit just off the speed before pouncing. I’ll also hope to be alive in the pick four to last year’s Carter runner-up Sahara Sky as well as GI Malibu runner-up Central Banker. Play: (Large) Win on #2 Clearly Now (5-1), also using #1 Central Banker and #6 Sahara Sky in exotics.

SA 4 - MSW, 3yo, 6 1/2fT - I have a feeling that first-time starter Designated can run a bit. The Pam and Marty Wygod homebred is out of a mare who had some speed on the track before dropping talented sprinter Idiot Proof, a debut winner, Grade I winner on synth, Grade III winner on dirt and second in both the 2007 GI Breeders’ Cup Sprint and 2008 G1 Dubai Golden Shaheen. He also finished second in a Del Mar turf sprint stakes try. Another half-brother also won his debut and did most of his work in synthetic sprints. By a top turf (and overall) sire in Smart Strike, Designated shows some strong works up at Golden Gate for Jedd Josephson. Josephson has excellent numbers in two relevant categories. He’s two-for-four when shipping down to Santa Anita, including a 13-1 stakes upset down the hill here in 2011 and third with a 17-1 shot in an optional claimer a couple of weeks ago. Josephson also has very strong debut numbers--he’s 17% with a $3.75 ROI from a large sample size over the past five seasons (stats courtesy DRF Formulator). Included in those debut winners is last year’s champion juvenile Shared Belief, who Josephson unveiled for the Wygods up at Golden Gate in October before he was sold privately. Play: Win on #6 Designated (8-1), exacta box with #5 Footstepsinbronze.

SA 7 - GIII Providencia S. - Favorites Diversy Harbor and Nashoba’s Gold are both talented fillies with tons of upside, but it’s hard not to take a shot against them here considering the much different pace scenario they’ll face this time from when they ran one-two in the China Doll S. last out. The pace was very hotly contested in that one-mile affair, but there’s only one confirmed front-runner signed on here: One More. One More graduated against $75,000 maiden claimers two back over a mile of this turf course, and set a relatively unpressured pace last time to annex a course-and-distance (1 1/8 miles) allowance Mar. 13. She certainly didn’t have the toughest of trips that day, but I liked how she finished and think she’s a little better than the speed figure gap between her and the top two choices would suggest. Now, besides a win bet on One More, playing this race could get a little tricky. I’ll definitely use One More and the chalks in horizontal wagers, but I’ll also try to get some bombs into the trifecta. Longshots Full Ransom and Savings Account could find themselves closer to a slow pace this time and at least one of them could hit the board. So I’ll play 10 w/ 4,5,6,8 w/ 4,5,6,8, and 4,8 w/ 10 w/ 4,5,6,8. I’ll also play a 4,8 w/ 4,8 w/ 10 w/ 5,6 superfecta (not sure there’s much point in playing a 4,8 w/ 4,8 w/ 10 TRI). Play: Win on #10 One More (6-1) and the exotics outlined above.

KEE 9 - GI Ashland S. - I’m not expecting the 15-1 she is on the morning line, but Rosalind has a big shot in here. The Ken McPeek trainee was a late-charging second in the GI Darley Alcibiades over this track and trip in October, and put in a similar run to be third in the GI Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Fillies the following month. Fourth with a wide journey in the GI Hollywood Starlet, she had some excuses when third on seasonal debut behind last Saturday’s GII Gulfstream Park Oaks winner In Tune at Gulfstream Feb. 27. Steadied pretty significantly early, Rosalind was caught behind a slow pace over a track that favored speed for much of the meet. She’ll get tons of pace this time, returns to a synthetic strip, and sports a local bullet work. I expect her to have a say at decent odds. Play: Win on #8 Rosalind (15-1).

OP 9 - GIII Fantasy S. - I like two horses here and I’m going to try to get both of them on the board. I have to give Kiss Moon one more chance to run back to her excellent allowance score here Jan. 11—she set a very hot pace that day, but kept right on going to win by 9 1/2 lengths. A puzzling seventh as the favorite in the Martha Washington S. after that, Kiss Moon showed a little more life to be fourth behind a few of these rivals in the roughly run GIII Honeybee S. I’m not sure why Kiss Moon hasn’t been closer to the lead in her last two, but I expect she’ll be hard-sent this time—she adds blinkers and sports two quick works in the interim. Mufajaah returns on short rest since taking her second straight Mar. 23. She just has the look of a really talented horse—she won at will last out and there’s no reason she can’t handle the step up in class. I’m curious to see how hard they bet her. Play: Win on #5 Kiss Moon (12-1), exacta box with #4 Mufajaah. Trifectas 4,5 w/ ALL w/ 4,5.

See Saturday's TDN for this week's installment of the Road to the Kentucky Derby Showdown with Brian and Steve Sherack's picks for the Wood Memorial and Santa Anita Derby. Follow Brian on twitter @BDiDonatoTDN

Handicapping the Transylvania

--Brian DiDonato

   Keeneland’s Spring Meet kicks off with a particularly interesting renewal of the GIII Transylvania S. Friday. A total of 12 sophomore turfers line up for the 1 1/16-mile feature, and a trio of longshots caught my eye. 
   Irish import Can’thelpbelieving was second in his first North American start for Graham Motion going an additional sixteenth of a mile here in October, and broke through with a very impressive turn-of-foot while adding blinkers and Lasix at Gulfstream Jan. 11 (video). Stepped up for that venue’s GIII Palm Beach S. after that Mar. 1, the bay was asked to close over a surface that had been playing extremely kind to speed, and could only muster a close fifth while covering his final furlong quicker than every rival but one (video). Can’thelpbelieving might prove more effective over longer distances than he’ll get to work with here, but he figures to get plenty of pace this time and his 8-1 morning-line quote definitely offers value. 
   Another intriguing off-the-pace chance is Woodfield Springs. The son of MGSW Communique (Smart Strike) (winner of the GIII Bewitch S. here in 2008) ran on well to finish third over yielding Gulfstream grass first up Dec. 28. Switched to the main track Jan. 25, the G. Watts Humphrey, Jr. homebred set the pace before settling for fourth—not bad considering a pedigree that definitely leans heavily toward turf and synthetic (he’s by Raven’s Pass). Rusty Arnold gave Woodfield Springs Lasix for the first time before a Mar. 1 return to the turf, and while the bay did enjoy an easy ground-saving trip, he looked very good reeling in the pacesetter en route to a 1 1/2-length graduation (video). Connections were considering the GI Blue Grass S. for Woodfield Springs, but I wouldn’t necessarily take this decision to play it conservative as a negative—they likely just believe that his future is on the lawn, and they’re probably right. 
   Medal Count broke his maiden by daylight on the Ellis main track in September, but it would come as no surprise if the son of Dynaformer proved best on the lawn. His lone grass attempt was a victory, albeit by dead-heat against a fairly average group of optional claimers in Hallandale Jan. 12 (video). It seemed as if the 2-1 favorite was ridden a bit over-confidently that day, and he likely would have won by a more comfortable margin if asked earlier and if not for some mild interference. Thrown back in the deep end after that in the GII Fountain of Youth S. Feb. 22, Medal Count was fifth while improving by four points on the Beyer Speed Figure he earned for the Jan. 12. optional claimer. I like that progression considering Medal Count was probably in too deep and on the wrong surface last time, and there’s no reason he can’t step forward returning to the grass. 
   The play: I’ll bet #12 Can’thelpbelieving to win at 6-1+, use 1,3,12 in pick 3s and 4s, and box all three in the exacta. 

Follow Brian on twitter at @BDiDonatoTDN

Tuesday, April 1, 2014

Understanding McGaughey's Recent First-out Success

   As I watched 6-1 Run of the River provide Shug McGaughey with his third 3-year-old debut winner in March at Gulfstream Sunday it dawned on me: clearly the generally accepted notion that all of the Hall of Famer’s horses need a start before showing up with their best is inaccurate, and likely producing overlays on extremely well-bred, often better-than-average horses who are in fact ready to fire right out of the box.
   When it comes to 2-year-olds, there’s no doubt that McGaughey’s reputation as a trainer whose newcomers need one first is accurate. According to DRF Formulator, over the past five years, he’s just 3-for-74 (4%) with a paltry $0.26 ROI with juvenile first-time starters. Those three winners were Forward March, a $2.05-million KEESEP yearling and grandson of Miesque who won like a good thing at Monmouth in 2011, but never quite lived up to his original hype; and Honor Code and Top Billing, McGaughey’s top two 2014 Derby prospects who unfortunately were both knocked off the trail recently with injury. It would seem an occasional McGaughey trainee can overcome his trainer’s early patience at two (either on talent, his natural precocity, whatever), but it’s certainly a rarity.
   It’s a different story with 3-year-olds—especially this season. McGaughey has won at 11% with a take-out beating ROI of $1.95 with his sophomore firsters overall in the past five years. Those numbers jump up significantly at Gulfstream, where Shug’s fresh faces win at 21% (43% in the money) with a $3.82 ROI. A good chunk of the profit came over the past month. So far in 2014, McGaughey’s 3-year-old firsters are three-for-nine with a second and two thirds (33% win/66% in the money), good for a very strong $4.33 ROI (including 5-1 Peter Island Mar. 1 and 9-2 La Madrina Mar. 29 in addition to Run of the River). It may also be worth noting that two of the three McGaughey 3-year-old firsters who didn’t hit the board at Gulfstream were by far the two longest prices—perhaps suggesting higher expectations for those who ran well over those who didn’t.
   Usually when I stumble upon an interesting statistic I like to come up with some sort of logical, qualitative explanation for the situation to make it less likely that I’m just chasing variance. There’s definitely one here, and it lies in making the distinction between a trainer being patient in getting a horse ready for his first race vs. getting him ready for his entire career.
   Since McGaughey juvenile newcomers at places like Saratoga fail to win first out, bettors assume that all of Shug’s firsters will be equally unprepared for their first starts. But what McGaughey does isn’t necessarily bring horses around slowly in relation to their first race—it’s so that they’ll peak later on—i.e. as 3-year-olds. So the 2-year-olds that debuted at Saratoga may not have been specifically less prepared to win first out than the winning sophomores at Gulfstream. They were just unveiled earlier on in the process and therefore required the additional conditioning gained from racing before being at their best. The 3-year-old winners might have been later-developing types or have had minor issues that kept them from racing, but since the goal was still likely for them to peak at three, they were either more cranked-up than the average McGaughey firster or had been in training for a significant enough amount of time that they were further along than their lack of a race would suggest—like in the case of Run of the River, who has published works in New York all the way back to last July.
   Just out of curiosity, I went back through all of McGaughey’s graded stakes winners from the past five years who began their career with him and those runners required an average of 3.5 starts to break their maidens (I’d guess the average for all graded stakes winners is significantly lower). Last year’s Kentucky Derby winner Orb, for example, earned his diploma fourth out—so did top turfer Point of Entry. So there’s no doubt that McGaughey’s reputation as one who brings them along slowly (and succeeds with that methodology) is accurate, but it would still be wrong to assume that his later-debuting horses aren’t closer to hitting their best stride than their race-less record would suggest. Ill-fated multiple Grade I-winning 3-year-old filly Pine Island comes to mind--she was unveiled as a sophomore by McGaughey in March of 2006, and promptly blew up the tote at 28-1 before posting a 5-3-2-0 record in her next five tries.
   I’d keep an eye on any McGaughey firsters who debut in the next month or so in New York or at Keeneland as potential bets for the reasons discussed above. Then I’d probably avoid the very late-developing 3-year-olds and certainly his 2-year-olds. But keep a very close eye on how McGaughey’s sophomore firsters do next year at Gulfstream—there’s a very good chance they’ll outrun their odds and show a flat-bet profit once again.

McGaughey firster La Madrina rallies impressively to earn 'TDN Rising Star' status at Gulfstream Saturday
A Coglianese