Monday, June 10, 2013

Was there a bias on Belmont day?

--Brian DiDonato

With a drying out strip on Saturday, many were surely keeping a close eye on how Big Sandy was playing leading up to the Belmont S. Let’s take a closer look at the trip and pace dynamics at play on the dirt throughout the card:

Click race number for chart, race details for video.

Race 1 - 6f Alw/OC - track condition: muddy (sealed) - 29-1 longshot Cay to Pomeroy set a pressured, but only slightly above-average pace from slightly off the rail and repelled several bids, but couldn’t hold off an impressive move from 10-1 Dehere of the Cat. The winner was in the two or three path early and swung far out into the center of the track in the stretch. Odds-on favorite Master Cip pressed the pace from the four path, but settled for third.

Race 2 - 7f Alw/OC - track condition: muddy (sealed) - Odea, a 7 3/4-length allowance romper in the mud two back, was bet down to 5-2 favoritism. From the inside, he set an above-average opening quarter of :22.41 (5 points above par on Moss Pace Figure scale), but slowed things down to :23.30 for his second quarter. Despite the breather, Odea finished last. Winner Integrity (3-1) pressed the pace in third from the three path, while Slan Abhaile chased from second and the two path and checked in third. Runner-up Bad Hombre was in the two or three path in midpack early and came widest of all in the lane.

Race 3 - 7f NYB MSW (off the turf) - track condition: muddy (sealed) - 12-1 Ah Gaga, who had never set the pace in any of her previous eight starts, was hard-ridden from the gate by new rider Mike Smith (eventual Belmont winner) to grab early command. She set a quick pace (:22.67 opening quarter--8 Moss points above par) from the two or three path and kept finding more to hold on. Perhaps trying to bear in slightly in the lane, Smith gave Ah Gaga plenty of left-handed encouragement and she drifted out, possibly herding some of her pursuers. Runner-up Concealed (5-1) stalked close while wide; third-place finisher Mononoke (13-1) pressed Ah Gaga from her inside.

Race 4 - 1m NYB MSW - track condition: muddy (sealed) - Second timer El Genio, who opened short and remained well below his 12-1 morning line at 5-1 at the off while adding blinkers and Lasix off a dull debut, set an above-average pace (+9 opening quarter, +5 half) along the rail. Can’t Catch Me Now (15-1), who had rarely shown speed in 12 previous efforts, pressed the pace while outside of El Genio, and ultimately wore him down in the lane to prevail by a half-length. Bernardo, who was also very well-bet down to 4-1 (15-1 morning line--scratching of 4-5 ML favorite obviously had impact on odds) tracked from the two path in midpack and angled out to finish a close third.

Race 5 - 1m MSW - track condition: muddy (sealed) - Tenth-time starter Moreno, who had run one solid race two back in an otherwise unspectacular career, was turning back 3/16 of a mile, switching back to dirt and adding blinkers. Given an 8-1 chance (15-1 ml) in a race that appeared on paper to have other speed, the Eric Guillot trainee (who broke through the gate before the start) controlled the pace throughout through an easy opening quarter and quick second quarter and reported home an easy 6 1/4-length winner. It was a merry-go-round affair where the top three traveled that way from start to finish.

Race 6 - Easy Goer S., 1 1/16m - track condition: good - Chalk Power Broker, a GISW at this distance who was coming off a sloppy-track allowance win at the trip, set an average pace with company while kept in the two path before drawing off to a 3 3/4-length tally. Runner-up Micromanage tracked from the pocket, was shuffled back while waiting for room on the turn, but came with a nice run up the inside to get second. Irsaal, midpack early and always wide, challenged Power Broker on the home turn, but was quickly denied by the winner and had to settle for third.

Race 7 - GII True North H., 6f - track condition: good (borderline fast) - Fast Bullet, part of a 4-5 Zayat entry, set an easy pace (:22.48 opening quarter 10 points below par, :45.16 half 7 points below par on Moss scale) from the two path and reported home an easy 2 1/2-length winner. He earned a 110 Beyer Speed Figure, a new career top by one point. Entry-mate Justin Phillip saved ground throughout from just off the pace and proved second best. The rest of the short field didn’t do much shifting from start to finish.

Race 9 - GII Woody Stephen S., 7f - track condition: fast - The freaky fast Let Em Shine did what was expected--he set an extremely quick pace (:21.99 opening quarter was 15 points above par, :44.73 half was 10 points above par--he was running 12 lengths faster than par at 7f for the opening quarter). He was able to save ground despite his far-outside draw, and understandably succumbed to his early exertions very late to be beaten only a length. Enjoying his second meltdown pace set-up in a row, winner Forty Tales was always very wide and came from second-to-last early. Runner-up Declan’s Warrior saved ground off the pace and tipped out, but was kept in slightly by the winner and had to angle back in between horses. Clearly Now, always fairly close and wide, didn’t do himself any favors by failing to switch leads and checked in third.

Race 11 - GI Belmont S., 1 1/2m - track condition: fast - I was among those who predicted a pace more like the Derby than the Preakness, and while that was the case, the actual result wasn’t. Palace Malice and Oxbow--who were part of that insane collapse in the Derby--were both wide here and just off crazy opening splits of :23.11 and :46.66 set by no-hoper Frac Daddy and somewhat surprisingly underbet Freedom Child. The half was 20 points above par pace figure-wise (compared to a similar +19 Derby half set by Palace Malice). While the actual pacesetters eventually dropped out to finish last and second-to-last, Oxbow and Palace Malice inherited the lead midway on the turn and were never seriously threatened by the closers, with Palace Malice--who did a little less of the dirty work--leading home the staggerfest. Favored Orb made an eye-catching move from well out of it, but flattened to be third. 

So was the track speed biased? It certainly appears that way--horses who were ridden aggressively early fared well and outran their odds on the early part of the card. The outside also seemed like the place to be (jockeys were pretty willing to lose ground and stay off the rail). Not much can be gleaned from the first two stakes that were run, as both were won by short-priced favorites who enjoyed fairly easy leads (especially Fast Bullet).

Things get much less straightforward for the Woody Stephens and Belmont, however. Absolutely extreme early paces in both those races presumably counteracted the bias (assuming it was still present), so it’s hard to really know how to treat performers from those two races.

Let Em Shine will obviously garner plenty of respect off of his brave performance in the Woody Stephens, and the pace was so off-the-charts that positive treatment would be justified despite how the track was playing--especially considering that he was down on the inside. Still, Let Em Shine no longer looks impervious to pace pressers, and I’d be willing to bet against him going forward with other quality speed signed on--especially at seven panels. I’ll also be very much against winner Forty Tales next time--his two stakes victories and his stakes runner-up finish have all come with extremely advantageous set-ups. Even if he ran against the grain Saturday, he made his move on what was likely the best part of the track.

I don’t want anybody coming out of the Belmont, frankly. The performances by Palace Malice and Oxbow were both impressive from a pace perspective and bias-aided at the same time, I wonder how each of them will come out of the Triple Crown. They were both up on two of the most extreme paces you’ll see and we’ve seen time and time again how the rigors of the Triple Crown impact its contestants. Orb has been exposed twice now, but he will always carry the “Derby winner” banner, which guarantees he will be overbet for the rest of his career.

Members of this sophomore crop seem destined to take turns beating each other for the rest of the year, and I look forward to some nice wagering opportunities in races like the Haskell and Travers. Micromanage interests me off his runner-up finish in the Easy Goer, and Normandy Invasion (who moved way too soon in the Derby) and Itsmyluckyday will have benefitted from freshenings.

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