Friday, July 29, 2011

Long Live the King: D. Wayne Lukas

--By Christina Bossinakis

   Heading up to beautiful Saratoga Springs, NY, last week, I imagined the trip would prove to be memorable. In fact, it turned out to be epic. With this year’s induction ceremony only a few weeks away, my mission was to have a sit down with the King himself, D. Wayne Lukas. Lukas, who was himself inducted in 1999, also trained one of this year’s inductees, champion Open Mind. For those of you who don’t already know (and there probably aren’t many of you!), I have been one of his most ardent fans since the late 80's. So the trip was exciting to me on so many levels. I arrived at the track just after 6 a.m., and the big man himself was already out on the Oklahoma track. His temporary absence gave me a chance to get the lay of the land. As advertised, barn 83–situated right across from fellow Hall of Famer Nick Zito’s establishment–was landscaped to perfection, punctuated by a lawn jockey prominently displayed amidst a lovely flower bed.
   As I was having a look around, an obviously well-bred Australian Shepard was haltered, but given a very long rein, out front. Being the dog lover that I am, I immediately headed over to play with the youngster. Wrong move. In his excitement (and I later realized in the absence of his master), he almost took me down. Only 4-months old and full of sass, Boomer was just about to run off with my sunglasses (thankfully I’ve had plenty of experience with canines) when I heard a voice that I would recognize with both ears closed. It said with an air of amusement, "Don’t you hurt my dog." And so the King returns to the kingdom. Dressed in a style I like to call ‘Cowboy Chic,’ Wayne was astride a ‘pony’ that is probably valued at more than many of the Thoroughbreds stabled at that track. White cowboy hat. Check. Bad ass chaps. Check. Crisp pressed shirt. Check. I have to say, Wayne Lukas never disappoints.
   A quick side story: the first time I met Lukas was back in 1994, the year Holy Bull won the Travers S. Lukas took the King’s Bishop with Chimes Band a couple of races after the big one, and I happened to be down by the winner’s circle for the presentation. I have to admit, I was a bit star struck, so I didn’t have the guts to go up and ask for his autograph. Thankfully, my cousin did. As one might imagine, I was totally frozen and could barely utter a word (I know many of you are shocked), but I often think back to this moment, because it turned out to be a defining moment for me as a racing fan. We all have to wonder if we have the opportunity to meet a celebrity from any industry, whether that person will live up to our expectations or whether we will be sadly disappointed. With no cameras rolling or shutters clicking (except for a great picture of us, courtesy of the aforementioned cousin), D. Wayne was as charismatic and charming as I had always seen him on tv. I’m not sure how a negative response from somebody I so admired would have affected the trajectory of my life and my career, but I can say with certainty that was one of only a handful of experiences that cemented my passion for the sport.
   But back to last week’s visit. At just before 8 a.m., the temperature was already hovering at around 80 degrees (hello Saratoga, nice to see you again). I went down to the Oklahoma track to watch a few of the Lukas horses take to the track and was quite impressed by the military-like timing and thoughtful scheduling that went into planning the day’s program. I wandered around the backside for a bit, waiting for my 9 a.m. appointment with The Man. It’s really pretty amazing how many former Lukas assistants I bumped into during a single tour around the backstretch. It's a testament to his ability to pick out people of quality and ability, I think. Back at barn 83 at the appointed time, I am invited into a little stand-alone office situated directly across from the main barn. Not sure many trainers have their own little private quarters like that, however, that luxury was obviously well earned. With Boomer tucked in quietly near his master’s feet, Wayne made a couple of quick calls and off we went. So, I proceeded to pick the brain of the man that I had so admired all these years, and during our chat, maybe a half dozen people, including members of the press, vied for his attention. Committed to the task at hand, we ran up the time to an hour (I could have listened to those stories for days!) and talked about everything ranging from his Hall of Fame induction to number of his champions and former owners. Winning Colors, Lady’s Secret, Open Mind, Serena’s Song, Landaluce, Tabasco Cat, Charismatic, Grand Canyon, and of the human persuasion Gene Klein, the Lewises, William Young– the man is a legend. Too much ground was covered during our conversation to include here, however, a few of those stories will be trotted out in the days leading up to Open Mind’s Hall of Fame induction on Aug. 12. Stay Tuned.

Thursday, July 28, 2011

Spa Watch: Week 2

--Brian DiDonato

The first five days of the Saratoga meet have certainly lived up to expectations. We've been treated to high-quality, competitive racing, and some jaw-dropping performances from the likes of Winter Memories and J C's Pride. The upcoming action figures to offer more of the same, and there look to be some very good wagering opportunities in the next few days. See below for analysis of some of those spots.

Bias notes: There was clearly somewhat of a speed bias on the turf during the opening days of the meet, but Monday's rain softened up the grass significantly, and no bias was apparent on Wednesday. I would treat both surfaces as fair at this point.


Race 5 - MSW, 1 1/16mT, f, 2yo -  My original inclination was to use three of the horses who had run before--Tiana, Illegally Blonde and Honey Talk--as experience and race conditioning are significant advantages in maiden routes, but an impressive win by Team Valor's firster State of Play Wednesday has thrown a bit of a monkey wrench into that plan. Trainer Graham Motion had previously been 0-for-16 with juvenile firsters on the grass over the past five years* before unveiling the son of War Front, whose sire was looking for his first 2-year-old debut winner in North America despite an excellent start to his career at stud. Now Motion's still just 1-for-17, but recent trends tend to be more relevant than past ones, and he sends out Vapour Musing here for the same ownership group. State of Play and Vapour Musing have very similar-looking worktabs, and they appear to have worked in company at Fair Hill July 7. It's usually a safe assumption that trainers pair their young horses together based on comparable ability, and if Vapour Musing is as good as State of Play, she should help Motion continue to augment his stats. Note that State of Play opened as a favorite Wednesday before drifting up to 7-2, and look for similar early action on Vapour Musing to signal her own readiness. The remaining firsters in this race still have significant knocks against them, so pair Vapour Musing with the three logical second timers mentioned above in vertical wagers, and give all four consideration in your Pick 3s and 4s.

Race 7 - Quick Call S., 5 1/2fT, 3yo - While speed is a huge asset in shorter turf sprints, this race looks destined to collapse--there are simply too many speedy types for the pace not to get out of hand. The three most intriguing raters offer significant value on the morning line, and here's to hoping that their odds aren't deflated too much by the fairly obvious expected pace scenario. First-time turfer Philippe, at double digit odds, is the value of the Quick Call. His best Beyer figure (88) was earned at Turfway, a venue whose Polytrack plays similarly to turf, and he endured a tough, wide trip before fading last time in the Chick Lang S. at Pimlico. The Jim Baker trainee appears to have worked very well since, and he has the pedigree to take to this trip. Philippe's half-brother T.D. Vance (Rahy), winner of the GII Hall of Fame S. routing over the Spa lawn in 2005, also took the Troy S. at this distance here two years later. Another dangerous late runner is Fastest Magician, who upended the A Gift S. at Belmont in his turf debut in May. While the Fipke homebred did save ground that day, he also dealt with some minor traffic trouble, and showed a very nice late kick, good trip or not. He turns back to a more suitable distance off a sixth in the GIII Hill Prince S. Great Mills had carried his speed over a route of ground before, but he faded from first to a distant last in the Oliver S. over yielding ground last time as the chalk at Indiana Downs. He is two-for-two over surface and distance, and has proven capable of rating at this shorter trip. Philippe's odds warrant a win wager, and the aforementioned trio could be used in exactas and the Pick 4.

Race 9 - Alw, N1X, 1 1/8m, f+m, 3yo/up - The hype has been plentiful for Kinda Spicy, who took her debut at Belmont by 6 3/4 lengths with an 82 Beyer for Tom Albertrani, whose numbers with firsters have dropped in recent years. The Darley homebred had a perfect trip that day behind three dueling rivals, however, and the field she beat was decidedly mediocre. She can still win, but will be terribly overbet. Authenticity, on the other hand, is much more talented than she looks on paper. The late-on-the-scene 4-year-old overcame a very slow start at a mile on debut at Churchill last month to be a decent fourth while racing greenly, and her maiden breaker last time must be seen to be appreciated (TDN Video). Off slow again behind a glacial pace while stretching out half a furlong, the $250,000 KEESEP yearling swung seven wide when asked and ran down a pacesetter who had shaken free at the top of the lane to be well-clear of the rest of the field. It's not as if the runner-up Empress of Gold was slowing down (despite some lead change issues)--she got her final 5/16 in :29.87 to Authenticity's :29.30. Those look like come-home times in a turf race, not a dirt race. The third-place finisher, a next-out winner at Ellis, came home a full second slower than Empress of Gold. Because of the slow early fractions, Authenticity's performance looks mediocre on paper--she only earned a 75 Beyer Speed Figure--but she ran significantly better than that figure would indicate. A little more pace and a little more ground this time make her extremely dangerous at a square price.


Race 2 - MSW, 1 3/16mT, 3yo/up - D'marin, a stablemate of the aforementioned Philippe, took to the turf, as many progeny of More Than Ready do, in his fourth career effort at Churchill Downs July 1. He was a non-threatening third from well off the pace, but could have been much closer at the finish with a better-timed ride and more efficient lead changes. He had a tough time maintaining a straight course when mounting his wide bid, and appeared dissuaded by Calvin Borel's persistent reminders, but D'Marin still covered his final quarter in the eight-furlong contest in :23.85--more than a full-second faster than the winner and two-fifths of a second faster than the runner-up. He's probably bred best for a slightly shorter trip, but another step forward could be all D'marin needs to earn his diploma at somewhere around 10-1.

Race 7 - Curlin S., 1 1/8m, 3yo - This race isn't so much attractive from a wagering standpoint based on the merits of longshots, but more on the potential vulnerability of the two favorites. Regally bred Bold Warrior has done nothing wrong so far in his career. He boasts a 3-2-1-0 record with a pair of open-length victories and relatively high speed figures, and based on blood alone figures to run as far as he's asked to. He has shown speed going short, however, and plenty of horses matching his description end up ultimately being better sprinters. Hall of Famer Allen Jerkens is just 1-for-23 over the past five years going sprint to first time route on dirt, and that one winner earned her victory in a three-horse race. Raison d'Etat, the first foal to race out of Sightseek, turned heads with a 7 3/4-length romp at Belmont June 18 in his third start. The runner-up from that heat, however, came back to be beaten 22 3/4 lengths as the 3-4 chalk with no apparent excuse. Of the remaining runners (Will's Wildcat is expected to scratch and run instead in the Jim Dandy), Golden Gulch offers the best value relative to his merits. Now two-for-two routing, the Windmill Manor Farm homebred has a win at this distance and a steady Beyer progression in each of his four starts. The horse who finished third behind him last time, another Mott/Juddmonte representative like Raison d'Etat, returned to take an allowance at Ellis by 6 3/4 lengths with a 92 Beyer. He doesn't have the flash of a couple of his competitors, but Golden Gulch is a dependable alternative who can land in the winner's circle somewhat by default.


Race 6 - MSW, 1 1/16mT, 2yo - Master Achievement didn't do much running in his sloppy, off-the-turf debut sprinting at Belmont, but the chestnut never looked comfortable over the wet surface. His trainer David Fawkes does very well with second timers trying the turf for the first time--he's 6-for-29 (21%) with a $3.60 ROI over the past five years. The Florida-based conditioner had a string at Belmont this spring and three of his runners there fit the criteria above--one, a 2-year-old, won at 9-1; and another older runner was second at 7-1. Freshman sire Master Command had a recent synth sprint to turf route second time winner at Arlington, and Master Achievement worked an upbeat four furlongs on the Oklahoma turf last week in company with a Monmouth maiden claiming winner who has a lot of early speed. Master Achievement will be dismissed off a non-effort in his debut, but surface and distance changes should prove very valuable.

Race 10 - GII Jim Dandy S., 1 1/8m, 3yo - This race looks basically paceless, and whoever guns for the lead will have a distinct advantage. Will's Wildcat is very likely to be the one who grabs the early edge (Looks like I'll live and die with the Baker barn this week). Prior to the Long Branch, Will's Wildcat was two-for-two in dirt routes, winning by a combined 12 1/4 lengths and earning Beyers of 95 and 98. He won both those races on the lead while setting average paces. He didn't make the lead from his far outside draw in the July 9 Long Branch, however, and instead pressed an above-average early pace set by a hopeless longshot. That frontrunner threw in the towel prematurely, causing Will's Wildcat to take over the lead earlier than expected and softening him up a bit late to be fourth. He won't have to worry about a similar scenario this time, as both Moonshine Mullin and Dominus, the two horses coming off front-running victories, only found themselves in front early in their respective races because nobody else wanted the lead. Neither horse's early Moss Pace Figures compare to what Will's Wildcat figures to run, and if he's allowed to travel at his preferred clip, distance becomes the only issue. The mid- to high-90s Beyer that Will's Wildcat is capable of running when having things his own way should take this. Add to that Baker's display of confidence by scratching from the Curlin to run here, and you've got a live wire-to-wire threat who could light up the tote.

*All trainer stats courtesy of DRF Formulator.

Thursday, July 21, 2011

Spa Watch: Opening Weekend

--Brian DiDonato

The most competitive, interesting and pari-mutuelly inviting meet of the year is finally here, and so is a new blog series--"Spa Watch." I plan to analyze as many interesting races--especially graded stakes and 2-year-old maidens--as I can, and will also look to come up with some trip horses to watch. As the meet progresses, I'll also offer up insight on which trainers appear to be hot or cold and will try to keep track of any biases that occur (Last year's turf course was incredibly speed-favoring, and playing horses who figured to get the lead regardless of other handicapping factors was very profitable--keep an eye out for a similar trend this year).

Check back here frequently for new posts. . .

Day #1 - Friday, July 22

James Marvin S. (Race 8) - By my count, nine horses (Jackson Bend, Aikenite, Gayego, Here Comes Ben, D' Funnybone, Hamazing Destiny, Caixa Electronica, Congressional Page and Jersey Town) can win this race. The toughest part of handicapping it is figuring out who will fire off the bench, as a number of major contenders are resurfacing after long breaks. While he sort of rose from obscurity late last year, Jersey Town might be the field's most talented runner. He was a very good second in the GIII Bold Ruler H. in October at this distance, earning a 106 Beyer Speed Figure, and then upset an excellent field in the GI Cigar Mile with a gaudy 111 Beyer. He also fires fresh--Jersey Town won on debut and has made it to the winner's circle both times he's run after a lay-off line. Trainer Barclay Tagg wins at a 17% clip with a $2.17 ROI off of breaks of 180+ days, but that number drops to just 9% with a $0.58 ROI when filtered down to just dirt sprints*. Those stats are a bit worrisome, but not enough to discount Jersey Town's chances considering his own proven ability off the bench and an upbeat work tab.

Hamazing Destiny offers the race's best value at his 12-1 morning line simply off the strength of his runner-up effort in the GI Breeders' Cup Sprint. To finish 1 1/2 lengths back of the speedy Big Drama and a neck in front of the very good Smiling Tiger is a nice achievement and one that puts Hamazing Destiny in the thick of things here. You could probably argue that Hamazing Destiny had the toughest trip of the BC Sprint top three--Big Drama slowed the pace down drastically after a quick opening quarter and Smiling Tiger had a perfect, ground-saving journey, while Hamazing Destiny had to come very wide in the lane for clear sailing and was well out of it early. Trainer D. Wayne Lukas has won just 11% of the time off long lay-offs over the past five years, but that's also his overall winning percentage over the same time period. The expected price Hamazing Destiny will be should serve to offset the trainer stat concerns to some degree.

Verdict: Jersey Town would offer good win value at his 5-1 morning line or higher, but Hamazing Destiny could be the play depending on the odds--10-1+ on him seems fair. I'll mostly use those two and the very logical Caixa Electronica in the Pick 4, but won't completely leave off the other five mentioned above in what is a very wide-open way to kick off stakes racing at the Spa.

GIII Schuylerville S. (Race 9) - This is another well-matched group, but might be a better spot than the Marvin to take an aggressive shot. Georgie's Angel will be favored off a 6 1/4-length score at Churchill Downs on July 4, but the pace she was involved in was very slow early, and she's not really bred to be a sprinting win-early type. She can win, and maybe the fact that she won going 4 1/2 furlongs means that she’ll be even better at six furlongs, but Georgie’s Angel  will be underlaid. Morning line second-choice Gypsy Robin is also logical, and she appears to have worked a five-furlong bullet at Aqueduct July 8 in company with Judy the Beauty--another Wesley Ward-trained 2-year-old filly who took the Shady Well S. at Woodbine last Sunday with a 79 Beyer. Ward, however, has much lower numbers with 2-year-olds in New York than he does elsewhere. The juvenile specialist hits at a 30% clip with juveniles in dirt sprints at all tracks, but that number dips to just 13% (with an $0.82 ROI) on the NYRA circuit. Ward has also failed to hit the board in six previous attempts in graded races for 2-year-olds in New York over the past five years.

I'm very interested in Vukovar, who was purchased privately by Southern Equine Stables and handed over to Eric Guillot following a nice debut at Parx July 2. This outfit made similar successful move in 2008 when they purchased Elusive Bluff off a maiden win at Belmont in September and won the GIII Pilgrim S. a month later. Vukovar’s previous trainer, Cathal Lynch, has very good numbers--three-for-eight, 63% ITM--with second timers who won their debut, so there’s no reason to expect a negative reaction off the first effort. In a race with a relative lack of pace for early 2-year-olds, Vukovar's  speed should prove an asset. While the Moss Pace Figures she posted in her debut were pretty low, she broke so quickly and had such a jump on her competition that she was able to rate comfortably on the lead before repelling a bid from a well-bet fellow firster while racing greenly. Vukovar posted the co-fastest quarter-mile breeze (:21 1/5)  during the first of two OBSMAR under-tack shows before being withdrawn from the sale, so she's probably faster than she showed last time, and she hails from a precocious female family that includes juvenile stakes winner Sherriff Cogburn (Vindication) and his full-brother Sargent Seattle, who never panned out after a very nice winning debut on opening day four years ago.

Five Star Momma is the other horse I'll lean on. She's been up on hot paces in her last two starts, including a runner-up effort in the GIII Debutante S. at Churchill Downs June 25. The winner that day, Flashy Lassy (expected to scratch out of the Schuylerville), came from sixth of seven early, while the show horse came from last. Five Star Momma's trainer Scooter Dickey shipped Flat Out up to New York recently for an unexpected, but excellent winning performance in the GII Suburban. I must admit, I have no idea what to do with firster Alydarla. She was towards the top of breezers at OBSMAR (:20 4/5), has very fast works over the training track and her trainer, James Chapman, has had enough success from a limited number of starters that you can't totally discount this very aggressive spotting.

Verdict: Vukovar should be a nice price, and deserves win money at 6-1+. I'll use her and Five Star Momma in the Pick 4, with a little Alydarla in back-ups and exactas with my top two.

Day #2 - Saturday, July 23

GI Coaching Club American Oaks (Race 10) - I don’t have anything particularly insightful to say about this race. It’s an excellent and competitive event, but not the best betting race. Before It’s Tricky flopped in the Gulfstream Park Oaks, I predicted that she would emerge as the best 3-year-old filly in the country. Supposedly she didn’t do well with the transition from cold weather in New York to the tropical climate of Florida, and she bounced back in a big way in the GI Acorn--so, for the most part, I stand by my assertion. She’s not without questions here (mostly distance--based on performance, not pedigree), though, so I wouldn’t single her or take too short a price.

Royal Delta ran quick on the Beyer scale (100) and proved her ability at this trip in the GII Black-Eyed Susan. She did get a pretty perfect set-up, however, and that she was forced to miss the Mother Goose is a negative. Buster’s Ready might end up being the value of the race. After a much tougher trip than Royal Delta when finishing second in the Black-Eyed Susan, the Evans homebred ran away with the Mother Goose after the defections of Royal Delta and Plum Pretty. She doesn’t have the same type of reputation as the other fillies in this race, so it’s possible that her price will drift up higher than it should.

I’m against Plum Pretty, who didn’t have much excuse in the Hollywood Oaks and now must ship across the country to face a tougher group. Joyful Victory has been exposed in her last two, and she would need a complete pace collapse and a non-effort by Royal Delta to win.

Verdict: If It’s Tricky is as good around two turns as she was at a mile in the Acorn, she should win this. She’s far from unbeatable, however. Royal Delta is a logical horse to include, and Buster’s Ready could warrant a win bet if she’s ignored--9/2+ would be very inviting.

Race 7 - 6f MSW 3yo/up - Perfect Slam’s 8-1 morning line price is too high and could go up. The 4-year-old Brazilian bred was very well-backed in his Churchill Downs debut June 25, and he chased a speedy lay-off returnee before passing that one and hanging on for second. The winner appears to have returned to promising 2-year-old form, and the pacesetter came back to win handily with an improved Beyer figure at Indiana. Trainer Ken McPeek has won with four of nine second timers in dirt sprint maidens at Saratoga since ‘08 with a $4.28 ROI and 78% ITM.

Day #3 - Sunday, July 24

GII Sanford S. (Race 9) - Overdriven has been the most impressive 2-year-old to debut so far in New York--and probably the country--this year. The half to MGSW and MGISP Smooth Air earned a 100 Beyer Figure (the highest for a juvenile) for his 3 1/2-length score at Belmont July 1, and the horse he beat was a well-regarded $200,000 fast-working Timonium buy. It was 13 lengths back to the third-place finisher. Overdriven has a 22-point Beyer edge on his next-fastest competitor, and trainer Todd Pletcher has had plenty of success in graded stakes for 2-year-olds with debut winners making their second starts (Uncle Mo, Scat Daddy, Position Limit, Cotton Blossom and Devil May Care recently). He should win, but Beyer Figures for 2-year-olds early in their careers can be somewhat unreliable because a lot can change while horses are still developing, so I wouldn’t single him.

Power World was extremely impressive on debut at Churchill Downs June 11 going from last to first in the stretch--a move that rarely wins at 4 1/2 furlongs--and he was second in the GIII Bashford Manor after that with a somewhat tentative ride. The half to Grade II-winning sophomore and MGISP juvenile Santa Catarina raced into contention along the turn, but was reined in at that point, allowing the eventual winner, who was coming from farther back, to get the jump on him. He closed ground on the winner in the lane, and has a chance to run down the deserving favorite late if there’s a meltdown up front.

Verdict: I wouldn’t spend much trying to beat Overdriven, but I also wouldn’t dismiss Power World as a potential spoiler.

*All trainer stats courtesy of DRF Formulator.

Saturday, July 9, 2011

Second Half Players...

--Steve Sherack

A pair of recent maiden winners at Belmont Park appear primed to join the upper echelon of the sophomore filly division following sharp debuts.

Darley homebred Kinda Spicy (f, 3, A.P. Indy–Isola Piu Bella {Chi}, by Rich Man’s Gold) opened some eyes in her unveiling for trainer Tom Albertrani, airing by 6 3/4 lengths June 19 (TDN Video). Asked to go a mile by a barn not known to have them fully cranked at first asking (Albertrani was winning at a 7% clip from a 70-horse sample prior to her debut, per DRF Formulator), the 9-2 chance chased in fourth through early fractions of :23.20 and :46.35. Waiting for room behind foes in a compact field of five, the bay found a seam at the top of the stretch and was hand-ridden to the wire to win in style. With John Velazquez aboard, Kinda Spicy stopped the clock for a mile in 1:37.19, good for an 82 Beyer Speed Figure.

Kinda Spicy
Adam Coglianese photo

The second foal out of Chilean champion and U.S. multiple graded stakes winner Isola Piu Bella has posted two easy four-furlong workouts at Belmont since, going :51.11 July 1 (21/23) and :51.39 July 7 (22/23).

Counterparty (f, 3, Exchange Rate–Passionate Bird, by Birdonthewire), a $575,000 KEESEP yearling purchase by Cheyenne Stables LLC, proved she had the talent to back up her good looks in her July 3 unveiling for the Todd Pletcher barn (TDN Video).

Drawn widest of all in post six, the gray ducked out a couple of paths at the start, but quickly recovered to rate in fourth through an opening quarter in :22.79. Counterparty cruised up in hand to gain command at the quarter pole as Velazquez took a peak back, and blew the doors off in the stretch to score by 3 1/2 decisive lengths.

Her final time of 1:12.39 for six furlongs was faster than a pair of graded stakes for juveniles contested later on the card--the GII Futurity S. (1:13.36) and GII Matron S. (1:12.68). The daughter of the multiple stakes winning mare Passionate Bird also earned an 82 Beyer over a drying out “fast” track, which appeared to have plenty of moisture in it.
Adam Coglianese photo

Wouldn’t be surprised to see either of these promising fillies in stakes races at the upcoming Saratoga meeting.

Key Race Alert...

Juvenile filly Bluegrass Atatude (f, 2, Two Punch–Potomac Bend, by Polish Numbers) stamped herself as one to watch with a stylish come-from-behind debut victory going 4 1/2 furlongs at Pimlico Apr. 15 (see Sherack Apr. 17 TDN blog entry), but hadn’t been heard from since.

Well, the chestnut is finally back in serious training for John Salzman Jr., posting a pair of three-furlong moves in :38.20 and :37.40 at Laurel July 2 and July 8, respectively. The Maryland-bred’s two-length win at Old Hilltop registered only a 59 on the Beyer scale, but she continues to be flattered by the also-rans as she sits on the bench.

The second and third-place finishers that day, Dancing Anna (Cuvee) and Defy Gravity (Bandini) both registered impressive next out maiden wins, then earned trips to the GII Matron S. at Belmont July 3. Defy Gravity tired to finish a well-beaten fifth as the 9-5 favorite in the Matron, but Dancing Anna held her own, staying on to place third after pressing the early pace at odds of 11-1.

Two other fillies from that eight-horse key maiden heat at Pimlico have also earned their diplomas since, fifth-place finisher Silkystar (Cuvee) and sixth-place finisher Forever Noble (Noble Causeway).

Pretty good results from one of the first two-year-old races of the season, and it looks like the best is still yet to come.

Tuesday, July 5, 2011

Book Review: 'Handicapping On the Road' by Mark Cramer

--Brian DiDonato

Renowned horse racing author Mark Cramer's Handicapping on the Road is an important and interesting addition to several genres within racing literature. Last year, in an effort to raise funds and awareness for Thoroughbred retirement ($1.50 from the sale of each book goes directly to the TRF), Cramer and fellow horseplayer Alan Kennedy (both Americans living in Paris) took a 1,000-kilometer bicycle tour of French racetracks, attempting to pay their expenses in full with winning wagers. They succeeded on both fronts, and Cramer entertainingly chronicles the entire adventure while presenting readers with a number of useful angles and handicapping insights.

Cramer, perhaps best known for the contrarian methods outlined in his 1993 work Kinky Handicapping, relies on different factors than most other horseplayers. Always in search of the "automatic bet," many of his plays are determined before entries are even drawn--he thoroughly researches and identifies particular angles or situations which have proven profitable over a significant sample size, and simply waits for those betting opportunities to present themselves (Cramer does, however, adjust his plays based on more "traditional" handicapping techniques). The author explains, "Classical handicapping and statistical handicapping are equally valid for picking winners. However, the betting public practices classical analysis much more than statistical handicapping, so the average odds for classical choices are lower than for statistical choices." Cramer weeds out, for the most part, the human, subjective elements of horseplaying and is left with all that really matters in terms of profit--the stats.

Handicapping on the Road is structured in a way that mirrors Cramer's own methodologies. The first part of the book lays the foundation, discussing both the fundamental principles underlying his techniques and presenting examples and particular angles, while the second half follows the author and his companion along the roads of France and from track to track. By the author's own admission, the first half of his work is more geared towards serious handicappers--it's a bit dense and may not be of interest to everyone. But to those serious players, it's a must-read.

One of the most illuminating elements of the handicapping-centric first section of the book comes from Cramer's interesting perspective on the differences between handicapping American races and European ones. His methods are very American, but have been adapted successfully to the different considerations present in races abroad--this not only gives those employing Cramer's methods an edge when playing foreign races, but provides a deeper understanding of dynamics at play in races on both sides of the pond. The author goes as far as to argue that, "From Dubai to France, and virtually everywhere else in the world, American handicappers can often find an even greater edge than back home."

The insights offered by Cramer are most useful to American readers/bettors for comparing North American and foreign form when the two overlap, namely in the Breeders' Cup, Arlington Million, major turf races at Woodbine, the Dubai International Racing Carnival and at Royal Ascot--or any time a European horse resurfaces stateside. The intersection of Internationally diverse influences can also be less pronounced; while following results from Royal Ascot and other European venues recently, I couldn't help but wonder if Cramer was cashing in on one of his angles that involves American-breds running in Europe. If he was betting the races in question, he was certainly making money. Cramer also presents readers with an excellent primer on trainer angles--an increasingly popular and important handicapping factor. His focus is on European trainers, which is useful in its specificity, but all concepts can be easily translated to American racing.

The second half of Handicapping on the Road features a noticeable change in writing style. Cramer, who also penned the well-received works of fiction Scared Money and Tropical Downs, allows his humorous, somewhat sarcastic style to shine through in a way that it cannot in the first section due to the nature of the subject matter. Whereas the first half of the text has a limited target audience, the second half will appeal to anyone interested in a number of broader topics.

Presented as a travel log, it's reminiscent of Beyer's excellent My $50,000 Year at the Races, but with a much more exotic back-drop. Stage by stage, Cramer discusses his surroundings--both inside and outside of the track--offering up interesting information for those wanting to familiarize themselves not only with the larger tracks in France, but the smaller rural venues--and with French life in general. The author, of course, places wagers along the way that are based on the groundwork from section one, allowing for a real-life glimpse into the considerations and actions taken by a horseplayer of Cramer's ilk. While this section is not as heavy on the handicapping, readers are given shorter explanations of the author's methods, serving to re-enforce ideas for those who read part one and fill those in who did not. Cramer does well in his aim to entertain and engage both groups.

Handicapping on the Road is an excellent read for the serious horseplayer, but also has much to offer for those who do not wager regularly. With its underlying concern for the good of the horse, it is a worthwhile addition to the library of both the horseplayer and horse lover.

Sunday, July 3, 2011

Arlington Park - Que Hermoso!

--Andy Belfiore

  What do TDNers like to do when we are on vacation? You can be sure, if we can work it out, any travel plans will include a trip to the nearest racetrack. I was out in Chicago last week, and two of my four days in the Windy City were spent at beautiful Arlington Park.

   My adventure was off to a rough start--my flight from Newark was cancelled. Never a good feeling when you get up at the crack of dawn (or 7 a.m., which is crazy early for me), and you have four missed calls between 3 and 4 a.m. from some 800 number you don’t recognize. Guess I should have left the ringer on.

   After sitting on hold with American Airlines for 20 minutes, I used my secret weapon for getting immediate customer service from the airlines--para espanol, oprima numero dos. Yup--just use the Spanish-speaking alternative, and you will get someone on the other line “en un instante.” Do I speak Spanish? Not really. I can tell someone to take another turn in the shedrow or fix the horse’s blanket, but that’s about it. But the customer service people all speak English. They might be miffed that you have found away around the interminable wait time, but they have to help you.

   My agent, once she got over my duplicity, explained that there were no other flights out of Newark that day, and alternate plans involved driving to LaGuardia or JFK, and getting in too late to make the races that afternoon. Not acceptable! After much prodding from me (she must have wanted to “mata me” {kill me}), she found a non-stop from Philly to O’Hare that got in at 1:30 p.m., and I was on my way. (God bless my unbelievably generous friend Diane who agreed to drive me the 90 miles--each way--to Philly Airport. She is now in my will.)

   The plane landed early, and Arlington is an easy drive from O’Hare, so I was at the track by 2 p.m. It was my first visit to the track (and to the city, even though my email address is Chicagopro...but that’s a story for another time...) I have to say I was impressed. I have heard nothing but good things about Arlington, and the praise proved well-earned.

   Dave Zenner, who does a great job as the head of Arlington’s communications department, had tickets waiting at will call. And, as busy as he was, he could not have made me feel more welcome. There was a table reserved in the Million Room, a lovely spot overlooking the track. It is the more formal choice for dining at Arlington, but I would recommend it. The prices in the food court caused a bit of sticker shock, but the menu at the Million Room was reasonable. Then again, at Arlington, you can just pack your lunch and enjoy it in the park-like setting--who doesn’t love a picnic?

   Dave was the rule rather than the exception at Arlington. From the guy in the parking lot (free parking), to the people at admissions (it costs $8 to get in, which seemed a bit high, but there were plenty of people filling the apron) to the tellers and the waiter in the restaurant, everyone had that Midwestern charm you read about. They get it at Arlington--excellent customer service is mandatory, or people just won’t come back. And you don’t even have to pretend you speak Spanish!

   The track itself is very pretty. The paddock is all flowers and grass and trees, and the grandstand is bright and clean and really well maintained. It’s small enough that there is a ton of energy in the place with just a few thousand in attendance, and the crowds were more than respectable both days I was there, drawn by the ridiculously beautiful weather and by cards that, while not exactly championship caliber, provided full fields and solid betting opportunities.

   It’s not your typical racetrack bunch, either--I was there on a Sunday and a Wednesday, and saw as many families and groups of 20-somethings as your veteran handicappers. I ran into one young woman pushing a double baby carriage--the kids couldn’t have been yearlings yet. “Got to get them started early,” she said with a grin.

   Kudos, too, to the information available. Jessica Pacheco works the paddock, and goes over the field in every race. She saved me betting on a loser when she pointed out that it had worked only once since a race a month earlier. And John Dooley, high up in the booth, does an exemplary job both in calling the action and in the added information he provides before and after the race. I was going to get up to place a bet until he let me know, two minutes to post, that the horse I liked was the 4-5 favorite. I didn’t bother--and the horse didn’t win. Nice!

   There were a couple of minor negatives. The food court prices, as mentioned, seemed a tad steep. Ten bucks for a slice of pizza and a bottle of water? And there were no TVs in the food court area, so you couldn’t keep track of the odds while you ate. Believe me, for $10, I was going to skip betting a race rather than leaving a crumb of that arguably ordinary slice behind.

   But that’s just nitpicking, really. There is a photo hanging at Arlington of the devastation caused by the fire that destroyed the grandstand back in 1985. Just 25 days later, the track was back in business, hosting the “Miracle Million,” with 35,000 fans tucked into tents and temporary bleachers. They rebuilt and came back strong and, more than a quarter of a century later (yea, it’s been that long!!), they are still a great example of what the racetrack experience should be all about. Muchas gracias, Arlington!

Friday, July 1, 2011

Speed Figure Maiden Watch...

--Steve Sherack

Anyone care to guess who has posted the highest Beyer Speed Figure in the 2-year-old division thus far? Give up? Apparently, a Texas-bred colt by the little known Danzig stallion Menhal is currently sitting atop the standings with a 96 rating (through June 30).

Sent off as the 2-1 favorite in his June 16 unveiling, Canigotoo broke like a rocket from post one, and zipped through fractions of :22.61 and :45.75. With pilot M.C. Berry aboard, he began to open daylight at the head of affairs and was hand-ridden to an eye-catching 12 1/4-length decision over 11 overmatched rivals (TDN Video). The gray, owned by Jerry Durant and Bill Jordan and trained by Bret Calhoun, stopped the clock for five furlongs in :58. He was bred by L. T. Smith Enterprises.

Canigotoo is out of the hard-knocking 24-year-old Fight Over mare Bella Selene, who is a half-sister to 1997 GI Florida Derby hero and GI Kentucky Derby runner-up Captain Bodgit (Saint Ballado). Bella Selene hit the board in 36 of her 72 trips to post, with $145,316 in earnings.

Menhal, a winner of one of four career starts, stands at Blossom Farm in Texas for a private fee. From seven crops, the 14-year-old has been represented by 11 winners from only 16 starters. He is out of the GI Beldame S. third-place finisher Coxwold (Cox’s Ridge), and hails from the extended family of GISWs Conquistarose, De La Rose and Upper Nile.

Canigotoo returned to the worktab with a four-furlong move in :48.80 at Lone Star June 30. Stay tuned.

Eddie’s Band, a 3-year-old son of Claiborne sire Eddington, also made some noise on the leaderboard, earning a gaudy 102 Beyer in his Louisiana Downs maiden win at second asking May 27 (TDN Video).

Away from the stalls alertly from post eight, the flashy blaze-faced chestnut cruised through an opening quarter in :23.14, began to shake clear entering the far turn and poured it on in the stretch after a couple of taps from Richard Eramia’s whip to score by a good-looking 9 1/4 lengths. He completed the seven-furlong distance in 1:22.85.

Eddie’s Band was hammered down to 2-5 following a troubled debut second May 8. In that attempt, he finished with interest while racing on his wrong lead in the stretch. Eddie's Band also got bumped at the break and raced in traffic that day.

Bred in Kentucky by B. Wayne Hughes, the son of the 8-year-old mare Bandstand (Deputy Minister) was acquired for a bargain $11,000 by Larry Johnson as a Keeneland September yearling. His second dam, City Band (Carson City), won the GI Oak Leaf S. and bankrolled $607,418. She produced stakes winners Foolishly (Broad Brush) and Weather Warning (Storm Cat), as well as Storm Tide (Storm Cat), the dam of MGSW American Lion (Tiznow).

Eddie’s Band, trained by Morris Nicks in his first two starts, has been training smartly since cap and gown day. He has posted three workouts, led by a best-of-31 five-furlong move in :59 4/5 at Louisiana Downs June 18. Transferred to Ralph Nicks, Eddie's Band is entered in a $75,000 optional claimer going a mile at Churchill Downs July 4  (Brisnet PPs).

To view the complete DRF Beyer Leaderboard, click here.