Tuesday, August 2, 2011

Spa Watch: Week 3

--Brian DiDonato

Another week's in the books at Saratoga, and patterns have started to emerge. Most notable is trainer Todd Pletcher's omnipresence--he has won 14 races from 46 starts through Monday, good for a 30% win rate and a $2.10 ROI*. He's "only" hitting the board 57% of the time, which is a little low considering his win percentage, so it would seem that some of his horses are "all or nothing" types. The problem Pletcher poses for bettors is that he's unavoidable, and seemingly unbeatable at times, but he's almost never going to offer any type wagering value. Breaking down his stats so far this meet by odds ranges might be a useful way to determine which Pletchers to toss and which to embrace:

- At odds-on, Pletcher's 3-for-5 with a $1.81 ROI.
- From even-money to 1.95-1, he's 3-for-6 and in the money 83% with a $2.60 ROI.
- From 2-1 to 5-1 he's 7-for-24 (29%) with a $2.36 ROI.
- From over 5-1 to 10-1 he's 1-for-8 (13%) with a $1.90 ROI. That one winner was Turbo Compressor in the Curlin S.--his odds were what they were because of two very well-regarded and heavily bet entrants, and his win was at least partially aided by a very slow pace.
- Over 10-1 he's 0-for-3 with one fourth-place finish.

It would seem that the main thing to avoid is playing the higher-priced Pletcher runners just because of who their trainer is. For a trainer who is so obviously on everyone's radar and prone to being bet, there's usually a reason when one of his horses goes off at a relatively big price. Those runners are almost always underlays because of people falling for something that's too good to be true. Also, be aware of which Pletcher first timers should be used and which should be played against--he's 4-for-10 ($2.55) and in the in the money 80% of the time with debuting juveniles, but he's 0-for-4, all at relatively high prices, with older firsters. It's very dangerous to leave Pletcher's 2-year-old firsters out of Pick 3s and 4s--I've learned that the hard way--and there may be instances where you can single him due to process of elimination of the rest of the field, but be careful with his older maidens.

Ken McPeek's story has been the opposite so far--he's winless from 17 attempts, but that has been his M.O. at Saratoga in recent memory. McPeek only had one winner at this point in the meet last year, and ended up with 13. He only had 4 winners in 2009, with the first coming Aug. 14, and he had five Saratoga winners in 2008, with the first coming Aug. 13. Expect the McPeek barn to start turning things around soon, and give an extra look to his horses in the coming weeks that already have one start at the meet--they might be primed for improvement and their form will be a bit darkened.

Both the dirt and turf appeared to be playing fair this week--for the most part, pace made the race. . .

Look for two posts this week--I failed to mention a few good betting opportunities on cards that hadn't drawn until last week's post was up, so I'll try to post again on Thursday or Friday.


Race 2 - MSW - 5f, 2yo - This is probably one of those spots where you're supposed to embrace the logical, low-priced Pletcher runner. You definitely have to use him, but there might be a crazy longshot worth betting to win and playing underneath. #4 Backnbiz debuted at Belmont July 9, and broke very quickly from the rail before two horses to his outside rushed up and dueled for the lead, relegating Backnbiz to third. He steadily faded from there, and the race ended up collapsing, but something tells me that Backnbiz might have flipped his palate or perhaps just quit when he didn't make the lead. He showed too much early interest to be as untalented as he seems on paper, and three regular works in the interim and no precipitous drop into the claiming ranks are both positive signs. There's also a little bit of quality on his dam's side--he's out of a half-sister to three-time GISW (KY Oaks, Spinster, and Las Virgenes) Keeper Hill and Grade II-winning sprinter Golden Gear. The rest of this field looks uninspiring for one reason or another, so I'll take a shot that Backnbiz will be much improved this time at huge odds--at least enough to run second to you-know-who.

Race 3 - MSW - 5 1/2fT, f+m, 3yo/up - An ownership group led by trainer Stan Hough, who's winning at a gaudy 32% clip on the year, privately purchased #7 Skiddles n' Bob off a narrow third-place debut finish going this distance on dirt at Tampa May 1. She broke slowly that day, but was rushed up to take charge while displaying runaway-type speed and opening up about a four-length edge turning for home. She tired just enough late to drop the decision, but not before catching the eye of her savvy soon-to-be conditioner. Skiddles n' Bob resurfaced at Belmont July 3 going six panels, and ran off again, this time fading to last. Expensive Pletcher buy Counterparty won easily from off the pace, but finished off the board at 1-4 in an allowance Monday. That subsequent performance might support the notion that Counterparty enjoyed an advantageous set-up that day, whereas Skiddles n' Bob got the opposite. Show horse Joonbi--a speedster in her own right who wasn't able to make the lead against Skiddles--came back to set another quick pace here July 25, holding on by a nose with a 73 Beyer. Now Skiddles turns back to the distance she ran on debut, tries grass and takes off her blinkers. Of those three changes, the surface switch interests me the least--she gets enough surface versatility from her sire Sharp Humor, but there's not much going on on her dam's side. But the combination of a slight turn back and the loss of blinkers, which should help Skiddles settle, could be a very potent combination. She will still probably make the lead, but if the lightly raced speed demon can figure out how to pace herself better, she might keep right on going late at a big number.

Race 8 - John Morrisey S. - 6 1/2f, NYB, 3yo/up - Ibboyee and Be Bullish--7-5 and 8-5 on the line respectively--figure to take up  a large portion of the market in this race, but both are vulnerable. Ibboyee is probably the best horse in the field, but he's a very deep closer in a paceless event. Be Bullish, on the other hand, is the speed of the speed. He was claimed for $75,000 by George Weaver for Mike Repole off a nice winning effort at Belmont in June, but his connections were taking a big risk claiming a runner off Rick Dutrow. Over the past five seasons, horses claimed away from Dutrow have won at a 16% clip with a $1.16 ROI in their subsequent starts--Dutrow himself has won at a 25% rate with claimers over the same time period. Weaver has only claimed and run back one horse over the past five years--that horse finished 9th here on the 24th at 4-1. Because of his main competitions' deflated odds, third-choice #1 Mineswept with be a significant overlay. He has the speed to keep Be Bullish in check, and should relish the turn-back for red-hot conditioner Rudy Rodriguez. If the other two falter, he'll find it hard to lose this. Mineswept is worthy of win money, and is the perfect "separator" single in Pick 3s and 4s.


Race 3 - MSW, 5f, 2yo, f - This is probably the toughest to handicap 2-year-old maiden race we've seen so far this meet. There are a number of question marks, and no easy answers. For instance, what do you do with Alydarla, who did very little running when unveiled in the GIII Schuylerville? Probably use her, I suppose, at her 10-1 morning line, but I wouldn't lean too heavily on her. I am more interested in another longshot. #5 Ribbon Taffy is a member of the first crop of Hard Spun, who has had a very solid start to his stallion career, and she's a half to Barrier Reef, who never quite panned out as some thought he might after taking the Whirlaway S. as an early 3-year-old (he did win two more stakes and was GSP, however). More importantly, though, she's trained by relatively unknown Kentucky-based conditioner John Pucek. Pucek has been deadly in New York this year--he's 3-for-9 with seven in the money finishes, good for a $4.66 ROI. He won a race on Monday at 9-1, and finished third on Saturday at 20-1. He's 0-for-7 with firsters at all tracks over the past five years with two third-place runs, but it'd be foolish to toss anything sent out by the Pucek barn at Saratoga right now, and this runner shows a few sneaky-looking works. Quite frankly, though, it's hard to come up with a solid opinion in this race without seeing the board. Almost every runner in the race has potential, and opening odds often help illuminate things. For real-time observations on things such as tote board clues, follow me on Twitter @PositiveROI.

Race 10 - $25K MCL, 5 1/2fT, 3yo/up - I don't know who trainer W P Higgins is, as this will be his/her first starter in at least the past five years, but #2 Last Hurrah has a lot going for him. The 4-year-old gelded son of good turf influence Kitten's Joy is a half to Finery, who debuted a six-length winner at 6-1 sprinting in the slop at Belmont for Bill Turner in 2003. Finery went on to take two Grade IIIs on the sod in New York, and ran a very credible fifth in the GI E.P. Taylor S. at Woodbine. Both Finery and Last Hurrah are Althea Richards homebreds. Last Hurrah has upbeat works leading up to this, lures Julien Leparoux and faces a very suspect bunch. He won't have to be much to contend here.

*Trainer stats courtesy of DRF Formulator.

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