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.

1 comment:

Gary King said...

A great read as always. There were some extremely interesting opinions and stats (Ward, Lukas etc.).

I look forward to the series.