Friday, February 08, 2008

Back to the Kentucky Derby Futures

SARATOGA SPRINGS, NY, Feb. 7, 2008--

The first of three Kentucky Derby Future wagers is underway. The 23 currently top-rated three-year-olds have been listed with early line odds, but its All Other Three-Year-Olds that have been installed the 5-2 favorite.

This in keeping with tradition. Future bettors generally cover the unknown bases early and, unless extraordinary value is available on a favorite by the time Pool 1 closes late Sunday, will await Pools 2 or Pool 3 before zeroing in on their preferences. Its a sound approach.

With the assistance of Equiform performance figures, HorseRaceInsider is providing a thumbnail sketch of the 23 top-rated sophomores plus one; the talented and long-winded filly, Country Star. Contenders are listed in alphabetical order with early future odds, their dosage index in parenthesis, followed by their career best, relevant Equiform performance rating:
20-1 (4.00) ANAK NAKAL, 72.75: Nick Zito trainee showed improved early speed earning a new pace top while winning the Grade 2 Kentucky Jockey Club Stakes at 2 over the Derby track. He showed good energy distribution in both prior starts. Plenty of room for forward development.

20-1 (3.00) BLACKBERRY ROAD, 72.5: Top-figure rating was earned finishing second to Anak Nakal, indicating a preference for the Churchill surface, a la Street Sense. Only negative is hes had many chances to break through with a better rating.

50-1 (4.33) BOB BLACK JACK, [78.25, 6F]: Therein lies the rub. He looks and acts like a sprinter and is bred for speed top and bottom of pedigree. The question? How did he crack the Top 23?

30-1 (2.11) COLONEL JOHN, 73: Showing good energy distribution throughout his career, his best figure was his last when he finished a troubled second in his juvenile finale, the G1 Cash Call Futurity. Bred to run all day top and bottom, added maturity figures to help. Dreaming if you think 30-1 will be available on Sunday.

5-2 (2.08) COUNTRY STAR 72.75: The filly is available in the all others category [8-1 in Kentucky Oaks futures]. Bobby Frankel trainee never has taken a backward step in three career starts. By a hot, young sire theres plenty of room for development. Frankel usually errs on the side of easiest path to the biggest purse, but this is the Derby. Hes always said that nicked up Empire Maker should have beaten Funny Cide in 2003. Maybe hell try to avenge that defeat with one of his daughters.

12-1 (3.67) COURT VISION, 72.5: Best figure was earned at Churchill Downs before soft win going 9 furlongs in extremely troubled Remsen. Has had three closely spaced workouts recently indicating seasons debut may be imminent. Owns enough pedigree and since Saratoga 07 Bill Motts productivity has been nothing short of remarkable. Odds seem relative to futures timeframe, but deserving of anticipated heavy action.

20-1 (2.60) COWBOY CAL, 75.5 [73.25, 9F]: Taking the Barbaro route via two dominating turf-stakes wins, he boasts pedigree indicating hell run long and successfully on dirt, too. Difficult to assess the odds on the Todd Pletcher-trained sophomore, but then you might say the same about many of this years colts coming from synthetic-track preps.

20-1 (3.00) CROWN OF THORNS, 72.75: Despite coming off two sprints into the mile and a sixteenth G2 Lewis Memorial, he rated well enough and kicked clear decisively. Of greater significance is that his soft win--defined as a victory in which the pace and final figure were lower than that earned in a prior start--showed much better energy distribution. This gives Hall of Famer Richard Mandella enviable depth. Early price seems low.

30-1 (1.80) DENIS OF CORK, [72.25, 7f]: Regular readers know weve been high on this colt since his debut at Churchill Downs, and earns kudos for the guts shown winning his troubled-trip second start over a sloppy Fair Grounds track. The 70.25 earned was a soft win and hes eligible to go forward in a big way off the compressed debut figure. Interesting to see where Calvin Borel, at the moment holding three Derby options, stays lands. Players should require every bit of 30-1.

15-1 (4.33) EL GATO MALO, 75.5: Undefeated in three starts by a combined 16 lengths, hes more than talented and fast enough at this stage to be regarded a serious Derby contender, as far as he goes. Hes long on adaptability but a little short on temperament, although hes eligible to settle down with more experience. But its a short pedigree that makes short price unappealing.

15-1 (4.14) ETCHED, 73.25 [74.25, 7f]: Visually there might not have been a more impressive juvenile to race last season. He drew off rapidly with a blinding middle move to win his debut then did the same when able to relax off slower fractions in taking the G3 Nashua mile in soft win style while distributing his energy more like a seasoned veteran. But hes being prepared in Dubai, so who knows?

30-1 (1.67) GEORGIE BOY [73.5, 7f]: Interesting horse if you can forgive geldings short both-sides pedigree. But hes never taken a backward step in five career starts, culminating with a G1 win in Del Mar Futurity. Hes been working swiftly and diligently for Kathy Walsh, who has a deserved reputation for stretching horses out effectively.

20-1 (2.43) GIANT MOON 74: Undefeated in four career starts including the Whirlaway, his top figure 74 was a reversal, meaning hes learning how to run. Trainer Rick Schosberg is giving the colt the good-horse treatment. Hell be tested in earnest in the G3 Gotham. Bred to run all day, he needs to learn to settle better. Not enough price as quoted.

20-1 (1.50) INTO MISCHIEF, 73.75: Picked a good time, the G1 Cash Call, to learn how to distribute his energy. He showed some uncommon grit in that victory and hell need all of that for Mandella. His pedigree is simply too sprint oriented. Would be bigger price than this on Derby day.

15-1 (3.00) MAJESTIC WARRIOR, [75.25, 7F]: Made lots of fans with unlikely impressive victory in G1 Hopeful. True, the pace was extraordinarily hot and the leaders killed each other off. But Mott runner came from so far back it rendered seeing disbelieving. But no one truly knows what to make of his malady-plagued Champagne. Ability? Obviously. Classic distance aptitude? Not completely sold.

30-1 (2.00) MONBA, 72.5: Love his development. Good energy distribution from day one and not a backward step in three lifetime starts, never flinching as distances increased. His last was an excellent fourth following super-wide trip in the Cash Call, going in the right direction at the end and galloping out strongly. Owns a Churchill win and very likely to get faster. Hell have to. Early-line odds seem fair, relatively speaking.

12-1 (4.14) PYRO, 77: Figures really jumped when he started going long--or were they a function of chasing rapid War Pass in the G1 Champagne and Juvenile? Probably both. But hes fast, finishes well, has enough pedigree and the right connections. Were sure prolific Steve Asmussen learned much after taking Curlin through last years chase. The colt sits atop many Derby Top Tens, so the price isnt out of line. No need to wager until after Saturdays Risen Star.

50-1 (1.67) SIGNATURE MOVE, 69.75: Two-for-two going long but recent soft win was painfully slow, as was his prior. Thus far, hes been a pace presser that hasnt proven much in a limited campaign. If you like him, add a zero to early-line odds.

20-1 (3.00) SMOOTH AIR, [75, 7f]: A remarkable colt. Hes never taken a backward step in five lifetime starts--highly unusual--and showed class and grit winning G2 Hutcheson. From low profile connections, hard trying colt is light on classic pedigree. He figures to win another prep somewhere along the way but the Derby seems a bit much. His odds will be thrice this quote by Sunday, as they should be.

20-1 (2.00) TALE OF EKATI, [75, 7F]: Picked up more than one set of eyebrows when he won the Futurity in style with excellent change-of-pace performance, then caught a sloppy Monmouth Park track. He has strong bottom-side pedigree and Barclay Tagg guides him, both good things. But talented colt is an unknown two-turn quantity and his odds, in that context, should be higher.

12-1 (4.09) WAR PASS, 79.25: Virtually impossible to knock. Undefeated in four starts, improving his performance figures with each start, earned almost same figure as Street Sense in taking the Juvenile. As everyone knows, he is sired by sprint champion Cherokee Run and his Mr. Prospector side is not all that much better. Given his obvious talent and the fact hell likely win a prep or two, 12-1 is probably much better than youll see Derby day. And isnt that what this exercise is supposed to be about?

20-1 (1.22) YANKEE BRAVO, 70.5: Yet another undefeated three-year-old, he was most impressive winning California Derby from extreme outside post, showing poise and professionalism that belies a three-race career. Patrick Gallagher has managed him beautifully this far and Alex Solis seems really impressed with him. But too many questions to answer given relatively short odds.

20-1 (1.67) Z FORTUNE, 74.25: Undefeated New York-bred showed a new off-the-pace dimension winning his last and earning a lifetime best figure; his three victories having come at three different dirt venues. Hes already done the unexpected and has Asmussen in his corner but is a little light on both sides of his pedigree. Hes handled everything thrown his way.

15-1 (2.64) Z HUMOR, 74.25: Third in the Champagne, he was a dead-heat winner of the Delta Jackpot. By Distorted Humor from an A. P. Indy mare, pedigree is no issue, and with three recent workouts within a 14-day day period hes probably close to his seasons debut. Given the higher profile of some of his rivals here, he might fall between the parimutuel cracks. That would make him worthy of closer inspection.

Written by John Pricci

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Friday, February 01, 2008

Contest Players Deserve Respect, Not Intolerance

LAS VEGAS, Jan. 30, 2008In the aftermath of Americas two largest handicapping tournaments, the Daily Racing Form/National Thoroughbred Racing Association- sponsored National Handicapping Championship, and the Horseplayer World Series presented by the Coast Casinos group, this is the word that best describes my feelings on the subject: Conflicted.

I dont believe that my wounds are self inflicted. What I see is a disconnect between the games practitioners the best of whom were battling for a lot of money and prestige last weekend in Las Vegas and those observing the action from beyond the fringe of the contest area. Its as if the handicapping community was split right down the middle.
Ive been around plenty of pressure-packed gambling action. From the trainer expected to win a million-dollar race with the favorite, to the would-be buyer of a seven figure yearling, to the whale who routinely bets a significant percentage of my annual income in the course of one afternoon, to licking the wounds from my own self-inflicted opinions.

A handicapping tournament is a little different, and its not because theres a potential life-changing score at stake. Well, maybe a little. But, the fact is theres no greater pressure than the kind a top handicapper puts on himself. Combining positive expectations with an exceedingly laborious exercise is enough to raise crazy to a whole new level. Analyzing seven tracks daily for two or three consecutive days is nothing less than mind-numbing.

The best handicappers always play to their strengths, whether it is turf routes or dirt sprints, allowance horses or maidens. The games big enough for everyone. You can find the answer in a speed or pace figure, a tough trip or suitable pedigree, a bad post position or fast workout. All the elements are there. But no matter how smart you are, or think you are, sometimes the hardest thing to remember is that you cant be right for the wrong reason. Like Zito might say, right is right.

So, finally, after all the pre-game, players are set to begin. The juggling of different races from different tracks and the irregular post times created by the occasional gate malfunction or obstreperous run-off can be very confusing, rendering focus nearly impossible. And last minute odds fluctuations negatively impact the decision-making process, especially when the goal is to accumulate the most money.

Sharp focus? Fuhgedaboudit!

Of course, racetracks could easily address this serious, everyday problem by throwing money at it, bringing wagering code up to twenty-first century standards. The only thing preventing horse players from betting in real time now are the dollars tracks dont spend in their own self interest. Thats the gambling business; governed by the criminally myopic.

Finally, theres tournament wagering strategy. In the HWS, last years winner accumulated mythical earnings of $2,929 by making 11 $20 win-place wagers, by rule.

Thus, players we spoke with were shooting for $3,000. In the NHC, contestants must make 15 $2 win-place bets on eight mandatory and seven optional races. Handicapper of the Year Richard Goodalls horses earned a record $272.30, or 31.60 more than the previous highest total in the events nine-year history.

You cant worry about striking out, said resident handicapper and NHC qualifier, Cary Fotias. Pete Ross doesnt win handicapping contests. Mickey Mantle does. Or, if you prefer, and in keeping with the weekend theme, its not Unitas to Berry. Its Montana to Rice, Brady to Moss.

Good handicapping doesnt guarantee victory, of course, but perfect handicapping and sound strategy does. After hitting the first mandatory wager of the day at 8-1, the eventual winner sat near the lead and watched his 276 rivals fire their bullets. His first optional play, producing a 23-1 winner, didnt come until the 9th at Fair Grounds. Then, with two contest races remaining, he took 7-5 on the winner of the finale at Golden Gate. The 11th at Santa Anita would not stand between Goodall and a half-million dollars.

To my point, the only responses weve seen, relative to the one weekend in 52 when a horseplayer can be king, were negative, which was a little disconcerting. Nary a wow or nice goin in the bunch. Coming from loyal friends of the sport, it was a slight to almost anyone who ever placed a bet.

Are horseplayers unworthy of a day in the sun? Its not as if Goodall or HWS winner, Ken Hopkins, pushed a button on a VLT ding-ding. Actual thinking and figuring and strategizing were involved. The reward for being right is a huge part of what makes this engaging, participatory pastime into something Hall of Fame trainer John Nerud calls the greatest game played outdoors.

The atmosphere in the Mardi Gras Ballroom at the Orleans and the Race and Sports Book at the Red Rock would be described best as laid back intensity. You could feel it even as the handicappers, all of whom had either earned their way in or placed significant wagers on themselves via a sizeable entrance fee, pored over their data.

But when the handicappers got up between wagers to stretch their legs and visit with relatives and friends gathered around the venues, the karma changed. It was as if everyone exhaled at once. The contest area was transformed into a warm and fuzzy place. You wouldnt know there was a competition going on.

When they met, the 960 horse players acted as if they had nothing to prove to each other, because they didnt, unusual for such an ego-driven pursuit. Each player there survived and advanced to the final round, only for the process to begin all over again. And theres nothing like the fresh scent of a new set of past performances and the infinite possibilities contained therein.

The horseplayers that had the passion to try, the skill sets to achieve, and the character to work the program, can take pride in knowing they make this whole merry-go-round spin. Certainly, they have nothing to apologize for and, in fact, should be held in some esteem by not only a grateful industry but by the sports fans. Unless you believe that people just come for the show, and enjoy the pomp despite the circumstances, not because of it.

Written by John Pricci

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Friday, January 18, 2008

About More Than Money in Las Vegas

Next weekend in Las Vegas, the week between the conference finals and Super Bowl, there will be two national thoroughbred handicapping championship tournaments.

For an entire weekend, Las Vegas will be the handicapping capital of the world, playing host to the worlds best horseplayers. A horseplayer that would be king or, perhaps, a queen. Elvis would be proud, as would Priscilla.

On one corner; the Coast Casinos Horseplayer World Series at the Orleans. On another; the DRF/NTRA National Handicapping Championships.

A little reminiscent of the old NFL and AFL. But those championships werent played the same weekend. Wheres Joe Willie when you really need him?
One way to look at it is that thoroughbred racing had a chance to dominate the Las Vegas storyline for an entire weekend but decided to step on its own toes. Again.

Would someone please get me the racing commissioner on the phone?

This will be the fourth year of the HWS. The Orleans will host over 800 qualifiers at their big dance, using three ballrooms in its convention center. This years contest dates were scheduled in 2005.

A handful of talented handicappers qualified for both contests. Because of the scheduling conflict, the HWS for the first time will allow proxy contestants, qualifiers sending representatives while they play in the NHC.

Not as glitzy as some other venues, the Orleans has a reputation for being horseplayer friendly. Having spent a long weekend there in 2006, it occurred to me at the time that their reputation for horseplayer hospitality was deserved.

Im looking forward to visiting the new Red Rock Resort & Casino, too, and hearing an explanation from DRF/NTRA sources as to why they didnt choose another weekend to avoid a dates conflict.

One spin has the NHC choosing the weekend of the 26th to coincide with the popular Sunshine Millions program run concurrently at Santa Anita Park and Gulfstream Park, one of the few Magna bright spots.

Ironically, the Santa Anita portion of the program might have to be rescheduled at Golden Gate Fields, the Magna track in Northern California, should heavy rains wreck more havoc with synthetic Cushion Track.

The real reasons might be that with so many DRF and NTRA people in Los Angeles for Mondays Eclipse Awards festivities, theyre just a short helicopter jump over to Sin City. That, and because the NHC just might want to kick down the HWS barn door.

In a Thursday press release, the NTRA announced the creation of a satellite program patterned in a fashion after the Breeders Cup special stakes program, a series of traditional races to which Breeders Cup lends its prestige and promotional support.

The NHC Tour is a year-long series of qualifying contests offering prize money and seeding into the finals. The Tour is opened only to registered contestants for a $125 annual fee. Contestants earn points based on a Top 20 finish in the qualifying rounds.

There are cash awards for the Top 50 finishers. The winner gets $100,000; the fifth-place finisher $5,000. The Top 3 gain entrance into the finals. Should the Tour winner also win the finals, he or she would earn a $2-million bonus.

The most significant aspect of the NHC Tour might have nothing to do with winning money. Registered contestants are automatically enrolled in a group called the Horseplayers Coalition. Still in its formative stage, the group would support the NTRAs lobbying efforts at the federal level.

Ironic how lobbyist has become a dirty name during this primary season of change, just as horseplayers may be finding their voice. Like the old joke: theyre off, you lose.

The Horseplayers Coalition can support NTRA initiatives that seek to find legislative and regulatory remedies to tax and business issues that impact pari-mutuel racetracks and their customers. Might turn out to be a futile exercise. But it cant hurt, and its promising that industry people of good will are bringing horseplayers kicking and screaming into the Halls of Congress.

Cmon Anybody!

I must admit to a certain amount of contest bias. Resident HorseRaceInsider handicapper Cary Fotias of Equiform is one of 278 players chasing a million dollars in the NHC next weekend. He qualified last year in New York, when racing was still a given on a daily basis.

But theres a hand I want to shake, a man I want to thank for his service. An 11-year Army veteran, Sgt. Chris Lavezza, qualified for the NHC on-line while stationed in Kabul, Afghanistan.

On Wednesday, hell fly from Frankfurt, Germany to Atlanta, connect with his dad and brother, head for Las Vegas, where his mom and his sister will join them at a dinner reunion Friday. Lavezza, the NTRA release said, will stay up all night to handicap if he has to. Ill be ready for day two he promised.

So it seems theres something happening here. What it is aint exactly clear.

Written by John Pricci

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