Thursday, March 02, 2017
Fountain overflowing with talented Derby hopefuls
March is the month when college basketball and Kentucky Derby fever get serious. The injury related absences of Classic Empire and McCraken have made this spring's Derby run-up more wide open than usual. But the new leader of the pack is likely to emerge from Saturday's Fountain of Youth, where Irish War Cry will bid to remain undefeated and Chad Brown will bring back dual Grade 1 winner Practical Joke. Locally based multiple stakes winners Gunnevera and Three Rules are not without upset chances.
Racing has its own variation of March Madness. Starting Saturday with Gulfstreamâs Fountain of Youth, the 2017 crop of 3-year-olds will jockey to earn the opportunity to become champion of racingâs biggest dance, the Kentucky Derby.
Circumstances have made this year crazier than most. Classic Empire, the Eclipse juvenile champion, is temporarily sidelined with an abscess suffered in the vicinity of the Holy Bull. McCraken, who succeeded him atop the polls, also went into a holding pattern this week with an ankle sprain.
Neither ailment is supposed to be serious enough to knock the colts off the Derby trail but you know how these things go. How many times have you heard a trainer say there can be no hiccups on the road to Louisville?
The Fountain of Youth is loaded as always with undefeated Holy Bull winner Irish War Cry the horse to beat. More on this race in a bit.
Also Saturday, El Areeb, the only sophomore with a pair of graded stakes wins this year, bids for his third in a row in the Gotham. It will be impossible to get an accurate gauge on him until he faces better than the inner track bunch he has been dominating.
Next Saturday, Santa Anitaâs San Felipe offers a showdown of Grade 1 winners, Bob Baffertâs undefeated Mastery in his 2017 debut against Sham winner Gormley.
The same afternoon, the Tampa Bay Derby figures to have a huge field thanks to the absence of McCraken, who dominated the prep, the Sam F. Davis on Feb. 11. If runnerup Tapwrit comes back, heâs my choice, no matter who else shows up. If youâre looking for a Derby sleeper, you could do worse.
Getting back to the Fountain of Youth, Irish War Cry impressed in running his record to three-for-three in the Holy Bull. However, the race could not have broken more in his favor, especially with the likelihood Classic Empire wasnât on top of his game.
Irish War Cry was able to lope along on the lead in non-taxing, almost even 24 second quartersâ24.14, 47.92, 1:11.87. This left him with plenty in the tank to fend off the closers by almost four lengths. Graham Motion, who trained 2011 Derby winner Animal Kingdom, doesnât expect his son of Curlin to have it so easy this time. âThereâs a target on us now.â
While Irish War Cry had things all his own way in the Holy Bull, Gunnevera, who closed resolutely for second, was forced to steady going to the far turn and lost valuable momentum. With different trips, the outcome could be turned upside down in the FoY.
Chad Brown has a dangerous new shooter in Practical Joke. His only miss in four starts came when he ran a troubled trip third in the Breedersâ Cup Juvenile. Practical Joke has proven heâs a fighter, a valuable asset. He won the Hopeful by a neck and the Champagne by a nose. Brown isnât known to lean on horses in the morning, ala Baffert, but Practical Joke has been firing bullet after bullet at Palm Meadows this winter.
Gulfstream specialist Three Rules is not without a chance. His Breedersâ Cup Juvenile, his only loss in six starts in 2016, came in a tough trip on the track after a grueling trip getting from South Florida to Santa Anita. His 3-year-old debut in the seven furlong Swale was an ideal set-up for Saturday. He was close to the pace, swung wide to take the lead in early stretch then hung in to be beaten less than a length by Favorable Outcome, who Brown thinks might become one of the nationâs top sprinters.
Not to be overlooked is the fact that Three Rules beat Gunnevera twice at Gulfstream last summer before the latter skipped town to win the Saratoga Special and Delta Jackpot.
I like Practical Joke to get the money but Iâll have Three Rules on at least one horizontal ticket.
Guarantees are a drag
At this point itâs as futile to request Gulfstream observe post times as it would be to ask Miley Cyrus to keep her clothes on. You donât change what is working.
Gulfstreamâs post drag reached its nadir last Saturday. When the clock clicked to zero for the 10th race, there were four minutes to post for Fair Groundsâ Mineshaft Handicap. As we often do in the press box to amuse ourselves, we wondered aloud which race would go off first.
It wasnât close. The Mineshaft not only went off first, the two-turn race was completed before the gate was sprung at Gulfstream. To make matters worse, Fair Grounds also dragged its post two or three minutes because the Mineshaft started an all-stakes Pick 4.
Gulfstream's post drag, barring a mishap, is not usually seven or eight minutes. Post-time plus four minutes is the new normal.
The reason the post was delayed so long became apparent when the pool totals were posted. The $350,000 guarantee for the late Pick 4 was barely reached with $366,621 wagered. Obviously the 10th race wasnât going to go until the guarantee had been met.
This raises the oft-asked question, what is the point of guarantees at top tier tracks? This isn't the Rainbow 6 jackpot. No regular player is fooled into thinking that the six- (or seven-) figure guarantee is what the payoff will be. In fact, âthe $350,000 guaranteedâ Pick 4 on Saturday paid $249.80, less than one-tenth of one percent of the guarantee.
At best, the big money guarantee is misleading to casual fans and tourists, big parts of Gulfstreamâs winter clientele. Is this a desirable business plan?
Guarantees might be useful at smaller tracks with lesser handles. They assure bettors that if they are lucky enough to come up with two or three price horses they will be commensurately rewarded and not collect substantially less than what a parlay would have paid, because there was only a few thousand dollars in the pool.
Given the typical pools at major tracks, this is never the case. So guarantees are pointless. The only thing they accomplish is to fool novices and occasionally hold up races longer than usual, making a further joke of post times.
Miami, March 2, 2017
Written by Tom Jicha
Thursday, February 23, 2017
To tackle Arrogate or not to tackle Arrogate; that is the question
After his smashing Razorback triumph, it's fair to say Gun Runner might be the best older horse in America not named Arrogate. This creates a dilemma for his connections. Do they go to Dubai and likely have to take on Arrogate or stay home and possibly dominate the handicap division. On the 3-year-old front, Todd Pletcher has another strong Derby contender, One Liner, who ran his record to 3-for-3 in the Southwest Stakes and partially answered questions about his distance limitations.
Discretion or valor? These are the options confronting the connections of Gun Runner after his 5 Âž length victory in Mondayâs Razorback Handicap.
Do they go on to Dubai, as they indicated was their intention, where they likely will be confronted by Horse of the World Arrogate? Or do they pull an adaptation of baseball Hall of Famer Wee Willie Keelerâs batting credo, âHit âem where they ainât,â by staying home and running where Arrogate ainât.
When Gun Runner was being pointed toward the Middle East, it didnât appear Arrogate was better than 50-50 to also make the trip. Now itâs more like 80-20 in favor of Arrogate getting on the plane.
After a characteristically sharp work by Arrogate on Tuesdayâfive furlongs in 59 secondsâGarrett OâRourke, manager of Juddmonte Farms, was quoted in the BloodHorse as saying, âThe horse is sound. He is in super form and Bob (Baffert) said there is difficulty keeping him on the ground when he gets too high. The easiest way to keep him on the ground is let him work and let him run.â
OâRourke said the final call will be made by Prince Khalid, the coltâs owner, but he is leaning toward going to Dubai.
Gun Runnerâs people intended to take on Arrogate in the Pegasus but couldnât make the race because of the quarantine at the Fair Grounds, their winter base. So they still might take up the challenge. Second money in Dubai is $2 million, more than any stakes in America will offer its winner until the Breedersâ Cup.
On the other hand, there is a bevy of rich stakes on the home front from which to choose in the next few monthsâthe $750,000 Oaklawn Handicap on April 15 over the track Gun Runner relished in the Razorback; the $1.25 million Charles Town Classic on April 22 and the $1.25 Met Mile on June 10âwhere the only conceivable threat would be Connect, who has not been heard from since winning the Cigar Mile.
Gun Runnerâs co-owner, Ron Winchell, might have given a hint as to which way the barn is leaning when he said after the Razorback, âWeâll see who else is getting on that airplane.â
You donât have to be Jeopardy Tournament of Champions material to figure out to whom he was referring.
One Liner jumps on Derby trail
The nature of racing in late winter and spring is such that Gun Runnerâs Razorback was almost completely overshadowed by One Linerâs eye-catching score in the Southwest Stakes for Derby age horses.
One Liner established his quality with a first-out score at Saratoga last summer then an equally impressive entry-level allowance win at Gulfstream six months later. Those races were at 5 Â˝ and 6 furlongs, respectively, so there was a question about his two-turn ability.
His breeding doesnât scream stamina. His sire, Into Mischief, won at a mile and a sixteenth but he was at his best around one turn. His dam, Cayela, is by sprint champion Cherokee Road.
One Liner dispelled some of the distance concerns despite breaking from post 11 with a 122-pound high weight impost. His time, 1:41.85, compares well to the 1:40.97 the older Grade 1 winner Gun Runner took an hour earlier.
However, a mile and a sixteenth is within the scope of most milers and sprinters. A mile and a quarter is still a bridge pretty far for a horse with One Liner's breeding.
One Liner will extend to a full nine furlongs in his final Derby prep, which will come either April 1 or April 8, according to Todd Pletcher. This puts the Florida Derby and Louisiana Derby on April Fools Day into play as well as the Blue Grass and Wood Memorial a week later.
Of those, only the downgraded $750,000 Wood Memorial, now a Grade 2, has less than a $1 million purse. This isnât going to help NYRA to attract the caliber of horses necessary to get the Wood back to the top of the grading ladder. If the $1.25 Met Mile surrendered $250,000 to the Wood to get it back on par with the other elite final Derby preps, do you think the Met Mile would be any lesser of a race?
A non-rare rarity
The commentators on TVG must feel that if there is a moment of dead air, the network will go dark forever. They kept saying that One Linerâs ship to Oaklawn was a rarity for Pletcher.
Not so. Pletcher might not have competed in many Southwest Stakes but he is hardly a stranger to the Hot Springs track. He has had an entrant, in some cases more than one, in the Arkansas Derby every year since 2010.
Pletcherâs Overanalyze and Danza won Oaklawnâs signature race in 2013 and 2014, respectively, and Super Saver used it as his final prep before winning Pletcherâs only Kentucky Derby in 2010.
Pletcher also has had representatives in two of the four most recent Rebel Stakes and the last four Oaklawn Handicaps for older horses, which he won with Race Day in 2015.
Whatâs inexcusable is TVG covered these races.
Itâs all about Vic
The first time I heard Vic Stauffer in an announcerâs booth was at Hialeah many years ago. I thought Tom Durkin had slipped in unnoticed. In his early days, Stauffer tried hard to emulate Durkin. He canât be faulted for trying to model himself after the best.
Staufferâs future seemed boundless. He had a great announcerâs voice and delivery and tried to paint a picture of a race rather than the mundane, âfirst by a half, second by twoâŚsixth by a head.â Indeed he has had a noteworthy run, calling races at top venues, including Gulfstream, Hollywood Park and now Oaklawn.
But he has not enjoyed the success for which he once seemed destined because over time, he did something Durkin never did. He tried to overwhelm races, making them more about his call than the race itself. If it was a stakes on TV or likely to be replayed on TV, he really hammed it up.
Back in the booth at Oaklawn, you would think he might have learned something and moderated his calls. It hasnât happened. Itâs still all about Vic and his pet phrases.
TVG replayed the Smarty Jones prior to the Southwest. In the stretch, Stauffer called runaway winner Uncontested âstraight and strong.â The colt might have been strong but he wasnât straight. He could be seen wandering all over the track. Who to believe, Vic or your lying eyes?
Earlier, in calling the final strides of Gun Runnerâs easy score in the Razorback, Stauffer interjected the stakes record and biggest winning margin and exclaimed, âGun Runner might get both.â He got neither.
Stauffer could have withheld these tidbits until Gun Runner crossed the wire. But then it would have been about the horse, not Vic Stauffer.
MIami, February 23, 2017
Written by Tom Jicha
Thursday, February 16, 2017
Winning is the only thing, according to a Derby trend
One loss shouldn't dash the hopes of Kentucky Derby prospects but a trend over the past five years indicates that it's a bad omen. The five most recent Derby winners have gone 12-for-12 in their preps. Throw out a defeat in a grass race by Animal Kingdom and another year is added to the streak. Meanwhile, the likelihood of sports betting winning approval in the courts or by Congress grows. But would this be a bad thing for racing?
MIAMI--Classic Empire, the Juvenile Champion and early Kentucky Derby favorite, might have disappointed in the Holy Bull because he became unnerved by shipping into Gulfstream from the Palm Meadows training center on the morning of the race.
Maybe it was a developing foot abscess that went undiscovered until a few days after the race. Perhaps it was a little bit of this, a little bit of that.
Whatever it was, failing to win in his first start as a 3-year-old makes him unlikely to wear the roses on the first Saturday in May, according to a trend over the past five years. Since 2012 the winner of the Kentucky Derby has been undefeated in his 3-year-old campaign.
I brought this up for the first time a year ago and Nyquist kept the streak going, winning both his sophomore starts before Louisville. That made it 12-for-12, still a small sample but sizable enough to not be disregarded.
American Pharoah won both his preps. California Chrome was 3-for-3 prior to the Derby. Orb also was 3-for-3. Iâll Have Another was perfect in a pair of preps.
The last time the eventual Derby winner suffered defeat prior to the Run for the Roses carries an asterisk. Animal Kingdom ran second in a turf allowance at Gulfstream in his 2011 debut. He rebounded to win the Spiral, on an artificial surface, in his final Derby prep.
So when youâre trying to identify the horse most likely to win Americaâs greatest race, keep in mind the phrase often attributed to Vince Lombardi even though he didnât originate it: âWinning isnât everything. Itâs the only thing.â
A Pletcher irony
The most recent Derby winner to score the first win of his 3-year-old campaign in the big one was Super Saver in 2010. How ironic that he is the only Derby winner for Todd Pletcher, who seems to have a herd of streaking Classic hopefuls with sparkling records at this time of year.
This yearâs hot prospect is Battalion Runner who has won impressively at seven furlongs and a mile and a sixteenth and is being pointed toward the Florida Derby.
Pletcher has another flashy 3-year-old named Malagacy, who won his 5 Â˝ furlong debut by 15 lengths in the slop then came back last Sunday to take a 6 Â˝ furlong entry level allowance by 7 on a fast track. His first race was on Jan. 4, so he is this yearâs candidate to rekindle talk of the Curse of Apollo; no horse has won the Derby without racing as a 2-year-old since 1882.
Thankfully, Pletcher has tamped down such talk. He feels Malagacyâs future is around one turn.
Coincidentally, Pletcherâs rival Chad Brown said the same about Favorable Outcome after his big win in the Swale.
If and when these two hook up it could be something to see. Unfortunately, there is nothing left on the Gulfstream stakes schedule for 3-year-old sprinters.
However, the Hutcheson failed to fill earlier in the meeting and Tim Ritvo said he would consider bringing it back later in the season if there is a call for it. A Malagacy-Favorable Outcome confrontation would add even more luster to the traditionally sensational Florida Derby card.
Sports betting: blessing or curse?
Some societal changes can be seen coming years away; decriminalization of marijuana, same sex marriage. It was clear they were inevitable, only a matter of time. Legalization of sports betting is beginning to slide into this category.
Obstacles that have limited legal sports betting to Nevada are under relentless challenge. New Jersey, which has been clutching at every straw to salvage whatâs left of the casino business in Atlantic City, has been frustrated by the courts in its effort to join Nevada for the better part of the decade.
A couple of New Jersey congressman, Frank LoBiondo and Frank Pallone Jr., are introducing a bill in Congress that would give states a four-year window to decide whether they want sports gambling. President Trump, a former Atlantic City casino owner, is said to have no objections.
Now Maryland is joining the cause. A bill, H989, has been introduced in the legislature. It would allow the stateâs tracks and casinos to apply for sports betting should the federal prohibition against it be eliminated.
The barrier is the Professional and Amateur Sports Protection Act of 1992, which prohibited any state but Nevada from taking action on individual games. Professional sports leagues have been ferocious opponents of all attempts to get around this law. But opposition appears to be softening.
NBA commissioner Adam Silver was the first to break from the pack. In an op-ed in The New York Times
in November 2014, Silver wrote, âGambling has increasingly become a popular and accepted form of entertainment in the United States.â Noting that it is estimated that as much as $400 billion is wagered illegally in the U.S., Silver continued, âCongress should adopt a federal framework that allows states to authorize betting on professional sports.â
Major League Baseball commissioner Rob Manfred has joined the chorus. A year ago, he said, âItâs important for baseball to give fresh consideration to the issue.â More recently he has amplified this position. âThereâs this buzz out there in terms of people feeling that there may be an opportunity here for legalized sports betting. We are re-examining our stance on gambling.â
The NFL remains publicly opposed to gambling on its games but it has overtly supported fantasy sports, disingenuously saying it doesnât consider this gambling. Some NFL owners have a piece of the fantasy sports action.
The fact that the league seems on the verge of allowing the Oakland Raiders to move to Las Vegas, where a new stadium would be wedged between casinos whose biggest sports business is the NFL--$138 million was wagered on the Super Bowl--is a further indication that the league isnât as anti-sports gambling as it claims to be.
The expectation is that if and when sports betting is legalized, it will be limited, at least initially, to existing casinos and race tracks.
This might not be a good thing for racing. Slots were supposed to save race tracks. They have done exactly the opposite. Slots have become ubiquitous while race tracks are closing down or running fewer dates. The promised purse subsidies are under assault.
Sports betting could be slots squared. It is said slots players donât gamble on the horses to any substantial degree and vice versa.
Horse players do gamble on sports. A lot. There is a finite amount of gambling funds among the public. Money now invested in races would be re-directed to games.
Also, sports betting is capital intensive. One certainty is Congress and the states would insist on a prohibition of betting on credit. This would take significant sums out of players' pockets.
Horse racing relies on churn. Sports betting doesnât to any great extent.
As a fan, I would love to see tracks allowed to handle sports. As someone who loves racing, Iâm concerned it could be the final nail in racingâs coffin.
February 16, 2017
Written by Tom Jicha