Friday, May 01, 2009

Kentucky Derby 135: Beware Sloppy Handicapping

SARATOGA SPRINGS, NY, April 30, 2009--Looks like it might rain on all those Derby hats. Oaks hats, anyway.

Which leaves all horseplayers in a quandary. What’s a handicapper to do?

I learned a long time ago that, when making an analysis well before post time, it’s a mistake to “handicap for a wet track.”

If wet track pedigree is there? Great, have at it. If wet track form is there? Add gusto.

With 52 hours to post time, as this is written, we refuse to be psyched out by conditions which are not knowable until it's time for what jockeys refer to as that song.

I covered 14 renewals of the Kentucky Derby while at Newsday and can tell you that on two occasions--maybe one was a Breeders’ Cup, come to think of it--I've seen a sloppy track turn fast in a matter of hours, especially in the spring.

Track superintendent Butch Lehr is legendary and the Churchill surface is rapidly-drying. All the weather maps I’ve seen show an obscured half-sun for Saturday afternoon.

Perhaps, the derby gods will be kind. And we will not construct our tickets until the last possible moment which, for HRI readers, will be posted at 1:05 AM on Derby day.

Here, then, a look at the remaining members of Derby 135, listed in post position order with early line odds in parentheses:

11-CHOCOLATE CANDY (20-1): Loves the game, as his winning record attests, and his trainer, Jerry Hollendorfer, should already be in the Hall of Fame. Of course, this colt has never seen dirt. The good news is that if handicappers must guess how his form will translate from the synthetics, winning bettors would be well compensated compared to, say, high profile conqueror Pioneerof The Nile. Suffered through very difficult trip when second in Santa Anita Derby, and probably was a short horse, too. Expect him to be at tops, indicating a superfecta finish is possible, and at generous odds.

12-GENERAL QUARTERS (20-1): Gray Cinderella colt is versatile, showing a liking for Tampa Bay, Churchill, and even Keeneland’s Polytrack, winning on the early pace or stalking just off it. The negative is that he’s a bit in-and-out, and this looks like an out spot. Hasn’t been breaking stopwatches since returning to his Churchill base and loses Eibar Coa to Musket Man. Not yet an elite three-year-old, his running style places him in a vice between the speed and the ralliers.

13-I WANT REVENGE (3-1): Turns out he’s a wonderful dirt horse. Classy, brave and athletic, no Derby-135 entrant has a better rapport with his rider than this colt has with the young, talented, cocky wise-beyond-years Joe Talamo. Between Animal Planet, his cucumber-cool Wood Memorial, and avoiding an Alysheba-like calamity to win a So Cal event last week, the racing gods just might be conspiring here. Churchill gallops indicate there might be more where that Gotham and Wood came from. Deserving favorite.

14-ATOMIC RAIN (50-1): Never lived up to the early season promise he demonstrated at Gulfstream Park. He’s never been a serious threat anytime he faced accomplished three-year-old competition, and got into the race due to all the last-minute defections. Had a Monmouth Park blowout before boarding a van for the 13-hour ride to Louisville, where he and partner Joe Bravo at best figure to get hot and dirty.

15-DUNKIRK (4-1): Apollo, 1882, and that’s a whole lot of history. Historical trends have been falling by the wayside recently but there’s a good reason why this one has lasted. But this colt cannot be eliminated on those grounds. True, he’s done a lot of developing in a short time. But his performance figures have increased with distance and experience. Todd Pletcher said that the long, lean individual is typical of the better Unbridled’s Songs, and has put on weight since the Florida Derby. Five weeks should be enough to refill the tank. Major player.

16-PIONEEROF THE NILE (4-1): Undefeated for newly elected Hall of Famer Bob Baffert but, as everyone knows, 0-for-0 on dirt. The Pro Ride horses have been running well on dirt all spring and observers have been impressed with how comfortable this colt is on the Churchill surface. But how he handles it Saturday is a complete guess. His high cruising speed suits the anticipated race shape and he wants to compete and to beat you. My guess is that he’ll transition to dirt. Now he needs to prove it. Value at 6-1 plus.

17-SUMMER BIRD (50-1): An interesting newcomer with less seasoning than Dunkirk, also making career start number four. This guy debuted even later, following his Mar. 1 sprint debut loss with a good win going long, then was a slow-start, wide-rally, strong-finish third in the Arkansas Derby. Even a money finish would be too much to expect but the race could provide an excellent educational foundation. Belmont, maybe?

18-NOWHERE TO HIDE (50-1): If a Kentucky Derby was held without Nick Zito, would the sky fall? Might never get an answer to that question. This is a nice colt who at present is not ready for something like this. But apparently the owners of My Meadowbrook Farm have dreamt about running in the Derby and will get their wish Saturday afternoon. Shaun Bridgmohan gets the last-minute assignment.

19-DESERT PARTY (15-1): The perceived stronger half of the Dubai pair was compromised by a moderate pace and a quality loose stablemate which kept him from sweeping the Dubai triple crown. A graded stakes win as a Saratoga juvenile speaks to his class and foundation and both Dubai runners appear to be thriving at the Downs. Owns enough pedigree and positional speed for the trip and is partnered with future Hall of Famer Ramon Dominguez. Wide draw hurts.

20-FLYING PRIVATE (50-1): Since stretching back out as a three-year-old, Fusaichi Pegasus colt has come to hand for four-time Derby winner D. Wayne Lukas. Following a good second in the Lane’s End, he suffered through a difficult Arkansas Derby trip. Finished well in his final Derby work at Churchill with a good gallop-out beneath new rider Robby Albarado. The post is a killer and he’s in deep water with these.

Tomorrow: Predictions and How to Wager on Derby 135

Written by John Pricci

Comments (1)


Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Derby Post Draw: ‘Big Four’ Have No Excuses

SARATOGA SPRINGS, NY, April 29, 2009--No more waiting; the field finally is set for Kentucky Derby 135. Despite the fact that there have been many defections for one reason or another, it’s doubtful that field size would be less than the 20-horse limit, race day scratches notwithstanding.

At Wednesday’s post draw, Wood Memorial winner and early line favorite I Want Revenge drew a perfect post in slip number 13. Indeed, none of the Big Four, including Dunkirk, Friesan Fire and Pioneerof The Nile were compromised with their position, having drawn posts 15, 6 and 16, respectively, will have any built-in excuses.

Today we’ll analyze half the Derby entrants in post position order, with the remaining 10 on Friday, followed by a detailed betting profile of the event to be posted at 1:01 AM Derby morning. Here, then, a handicapping sketch of the first 10 horses to line up for the starter at 6:04 p.m. Saturday, early line odds in parentheses:

1-WEST SIDE BERNIE (30-1): A good wide-trip third in the Holy Bull, a dull return to the synthetics, then a strong-rally placing behind I Want Revenge in the Wood Memorial. He, too, has proven “faster” on conventional dirt, but has required time to rebound from top efforts and his Wood was a career top. Connections must be concerned, scheduling a final short work to keep whatever energy may be left in the tank. A very nice colt that appears heading the wrong way and the rail draw certainly didn’t help.

2-MUSKET MAN (20-1): There might be better colts in Derby 135 but not many that are better managed: A less than perfect trip third in the Sam F. Davis is the only blemish in a six-race career. After rebounding to win the Tampa Derby, he shipped to Hawthorne and became a man with a comprehensive Illinois Derby score. But that career-best effort sets him up for a regression. Churchill training indicates that might be the case.

3- MR. HOT STUFF (30-1): Altered course, weaving his way through traffic when third in the Santa Anita Derby, galloping out very strongly past the wire. Has two nine-furlong routes under his belt, is bred for the distance, and had crisp work Monday at his Santa Anita base. With Corey Nakatani opting for Square Eddie, a last minute defection, colt picks up hot-riding Johnny Velazquez, indicating that it might be better to be lucky than good. Live exotics price play.

4-ADVICE (30-1):His work on Monday convinced his connections to make a run for the roses. Chapel Royal colt has had a career mixed with immaturity and bad luck but put it together in a big way to win the Lexington, coming from last of 11 after early trouble. Has earned his way into the field but doesn’t appear fast enough and is another deep closer in what might be a moderately paced event.

5-HOLD ME BACK (15-1): Impossible to knock in two starts this year. Colt overcame a quirky Turfway Polytrack to win the Lane’s End coming from last then was an excellent second after General Quarters got the drop on him in the Blue Grass. Nagging flaw was a horrible outing in last year’s Remsen, his only dirt start. Sunday workout showed ability to handle the surface while maintaining his freshness and strength. Exotics player.

6-FRIESAN FIRE (5-1): The negatives are a seven week layoff and no races beyond a mile and a sixteenth. Trainer Larry Jones had Hard Spun ready off a six-week respite and has a good history in this race, the Eight Belles tragedy notwithstanding. The other issue is that his best performance figure came on a sloppy track he obviously loved. Jones took a page from his own playbook, working his fresh colt five furlongs in :57 4/5. In the fray throughout, he’s a difficult read at relatively short odds.

7-PAPA CLEM (20-1): Another “new horse” with the shift from synthetics to dirt. After catching Louisiana Derby slop, he shipped to Hot Springs and won the Arkansas Derby with a career best effort. But that performance very likely could take its toll if a recent disappointing workout is any measure. The Kentucky Derby leaves a very little margin for error. Possibly worth a flyer, but needing twice the early-line odds.

8-MINE THAT BIRD (50-1): A bargain basement yearling, he’s been from one barn to the next but accomplished enough to be voted 2008 Canadian juvenile champion. Had a workmanlike five-furlong work with a good gallop-out, but when given an opportunity beneath Richard Mandella’s shedrow proved that he wasn’t really a prime time player. After SoCal sojourn, was winless in two starts at Sunland Park. Way over his head here.

9-JOIN IN THE DANCE (50-1): Apparent one-dimensional speedster is nonetheless pretty game. The trick is knowing how well he’ll class up. Held extremely well making two-turn debut in his first start over Tampa’s demanding surface, missing by a neck to win-machine Musket Man. Showing speed in the Blue Grass but tiring on Polytrack is mulligan material. Even with different owners, his best utility, as far as trainer Pletcher is concerned, would be to insure an honest pace for Advice and Dunkirk.

10-REGAL RANSOM (30-1): The speedy member of the Godolphin duo arguably possesses stoutest pedigree among Derby 135’s 20 starters. Has a juvenile foundation, is tactical--as opposed to run-off speed--and has a partner (Alan Garcia) with a deserved reputation for effectiveness with his type. With Join In The Dance to his immediate inside, a stalking posture appears more likely than a frontrunning gambit.

Tomorrow: Posts 11 through 20

Written by John Pricci

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Thursday, April 23, 2009

Zenyatta’s One Chance at Immortiality

SARATOGA SPRINGS, NY, April 22, 2009--Need to admit something up front: In this economy--and maybe pre-crash, too--I don’t know if I could have pulled the string and started my filly money-making machine, the mighty Zenyatta, against males in last year’s Breeders’ Cup Classic.

But then I don’t think I would have whined about the way Eclipse voters cast their ballots, hinting that many voters might not have fully appreciated the behemoth filly’s wondrous 7-for-7 season while peering through their East Coast-colored glasses.

In this space last year, we implored owner Jerry Moss and trainer John Shirreffs to run in the Classic, stating that their filly had nothing left to prove beating her own kind, in her own back yard.

In the run-up to Breeders‘ Cup, many observers believed that the Pro Ride surface would favor the Europeans. But no one could have fathomed how much the invaders would dominate the silver anniversary edition of the Breeders’ Cup World Championships.

After all it’s still a long way from Tipperary to Tinseltown.

All Zenyatta needed to do was travel cross-town, not across an ocean and a continent, or endure quarantine, to race over a surface she demonstrated time and again that she loved. She had the disposition, body type, running style, and the pedigree to get that job done.

The filly’s connections had every right to choose the path of least resistance, even if the Ladies Classic field was one of the deepest ever assembled, and collect the lioness’s share of a $2 million purse.

Besides, managing an undefeated race horse comes with a unique set of pressures and, yes, the connections had another horse, Tiago, to run in the Classic the following day.

After having a strong three-quarter mile workout, indicating that she’s sitting on top of a season’s debut, her first race since October 24, Shirreffs spoke about her losing the Horse of the Year title to Curlin, who didn’t duck the Classic despite his trainer’s concerns with the synthetic surface. Curlin even tried grass.

Shirreffs told Art Wilson of the Pasadena Star News that he thought losing out to Curlin “was terrible,” saying that the quality of the fields she beat and the races she competed in should have made her Horse of the Year.

“Every field she ran in, out came another winner,” Shirreffs explained. “She beat horses that were peaking. The quality of the fields were just unbelievable.”

In the Classic, a pair of European three-year-olds traveled 5,000 miles and beat a full field of mostly older horses, including a defending Horse of the Year.

Indeed, Zenyatta dominated the best field of fillies assembled in 2008. However, in six previous starts, she beat a total of 30 rivals, an average five fillies per start, all but one over the California synthetics.

Owner Moss conceded that the late Joe Hirsch always held that fillies and/or three year old males must beat older males in the championship events of fall. (Triple Crown winners notwithstanding, of course). Most of Hirsch’s disciples agree.

Zenyatta’s debut could come at Churchill Downs in the Grade 2 Louisville Distaff at a mile and a sixteenth on Oaks day. It would be a greatly anticipated event and a good place to start this year’s Horse of the Year campaign, especially if the Breeders’ Cup winds up at Churchill.

A victory would improve Zenyatta’s record to 10-for-10, putting her within three victories of a great undefeated Hall of Famer, Personal Ensign, a goal worth achieving.

Should she win the May 1 race, the connections mentioned two Grade 1s, Hollywood’s Vanity in June and Del Mar’s Clement L. Hirsch in August as potential future goals. If she takes those, she’d be one win shy of Personal Ensign.

So, figuring that she wins a Breeder’s Cup prep in September, and the Ladies Classic in late October, it would be game over: 14-for-14, a place in racing history and a much better chance to become Horse of the Year 2009 without ever having to face males.

Shirreffs said that he thinks a race against colts is in the back of everyone’s mind and that we’ll see how the rest of the year goes first. (See above).

If the scenario outlined above plays itself out, we’ll never see Zenyatta face males. But if she is defeated, taking her out of the Personal Ensign territory, the only way for her to win the title her connections felt they deserved last year might be to take on the boys.

There is another possible scenario, however, one that would take--how do they say it in that part of the country? Right, cojones.

She wins her 13th consecutive race prepping for the Breeders’ Cup then goes for the record vs. males in the Classic. In that case, Horse of the Year would be a given. She would have tied Personal Ensign and Curlin wasn’t punished for his Classic loss, was he?

Instead, Zenyatta wins and becomes an iconic figure, a truly legendary racehorse, setting that standard over the same racetrack Personal Ensign ran her greatest race, beating a filly who beat boys that same year in the Kentucky Derby.

How’s that, Hollywood?

Written by John Pricci

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