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The Conscience of Thoroughbred Racing


Beyond picking the occasional winner, what turf writers root for most are the great stories. Saturday at Keeneland, the Blue Grass Stakes produced a great-story exacta.

Swiss Skywalker has been a revelation this season and will still go into the Kentucky Oaks a deserving favorite. The only thing the filly lost yesterday was a horse race to Art Collector, a Derby colt on the come.

Hustled along from the start by Mike Smith to gain the lead, Swiss Skywalker was pressured every step of the way but ultimately gave way a sixteenth from home, no match for garden-tripping Art Collector at the end.

Looking at her form going into Keeneland’s signature event can get a handicapper tired when they note that she began her campaign in Oldsmar FL, shipped to New Orleans LA, to Hallandale FL. to Hot Springs ARK, to Arcadia CA and finally Lexington KY.

That’s 6,404 air miles but wait, there’s more. If you count the miles between races back to the home training base, add 1,378 more miles for a grand total of 7,782 travel miles in 178 days.

That’s lot of time on the road and in the air, especially for a filly. And the point? It was OK to get a little tired inside the final furlong, and we’re taking nothing away from the winner.

Unless some other three year old filly comes along and sweeps the Grade 1/Grade 2 two-turn table (Gamine?) she already has my Eclipse vote in this category. Swiss Skywalker is one classy miss, the horse of a lifetime type.

So credit Ken McPeek for his development of the filly, and credit his guts for accepting the challenge of making history.

This does not detract from Art Collector’s performance, a colt who’s won all his starts this year and has gotten good at the perfect time.

In my mind’s eye, he’s not yet the equal of Tiz the Law or Honor A. P., but he’s entering the neighborhood. More on Art Collector in a bit.

This is more the story of his trainer, an legendary third generation horseman known only to industry insiders. Until Saturday.

In the past, if you needed a top assistant, Thomas Drury Jr. was your man; if you needed a young horse broken, you’d call Tom. If you have a runner in need of a rejuvenating layup, or a horse with a little problem, send him to Tom.

Drury has trained a few nice horses in the past but never has had one that could take him to the mountain top as this one might.

So the 2020 Blue Grass turned out to be quite the coming-out party, as Drury engineered a 3-for-3 season with a drawing away 7-furlong score, a laugh-out-loud two-turn dirt debut after find himself on the lead, prior to defeating a top class rival.

A filly? Yes. But the accomplished winner of three consecutive graded stakes while giving a five-pound head start.

And, just for the sidebar of it, Brian Hernandez Jr., who had ridden both to victory, committed to the colt in advance. One week ago the rider might have asked himself? Do I want to be, say, 10-1 in the Derby, or even money in the Oaks?

Hernandez answered that question brilliantly yesterday; the highlight of an already outstanding brief meet. And who knows? Hernandez might wind up on both Derby weekend.

Hopefully there will be time enough for McPeek to refill Swiss Skywalker’s tank and that Drury’s talented colt will suffer no roadblocks along the road to Louisville; he’s earned that.

When asked about his Derby prospects yesterday, Drury had the perfect response: “I’ve waited all my life to get here. I’m going to enjoy this one more day before I start thinking about all that.”


Not going to “hammer” the network, endless equivocating and pandering notwithstanding. I appreciate the information that hosts/analysts provide. I have my loves and hates, and I’m sure they feel the same about me–hate’s 3-5 on that early line.

But I can’t condone the endless knocking of linemakers. TVG analysts are well aware of today’s condition books that go three to four class distinctions deep because the racing office needs to make races go.

Do most handicapping analysts have an idea how hard it is to match up such disparate entrants 48 to 72 hours in advance of race day? Let me answer that for you; most don’t.

Much has changed in this game since I first learned to make a line at the old Triangle Publication’s National Armstrong Daily, a.k.a. “the scratch sheet.”

It was easier then with no simulcasting, when a month layoff was a bad thing, and shippers weren’t as commonplace. “Just make sure you have the right favorite and the “book” should never exceed 120 points,” Vince Mangano scolded.

The job back in the day was more about grading the entries. The public determines what the final odds will be. The linemaker’s job was to provide an acceptable price for what horse should be–a proper value line if you will.

To balance a book of 120 percentage points–which reflects takeout and odd pennies based on actual dollars wagered–it gave oddsmakers breathing room to “balance the book” which in reality cannot exceed 100%. Different topic; different day.

When today’s linemaker makes a horse even money–even if he’s sure the horse will be 1-2 ante post in an 8-to-12 horse field, even money is 50% of the percentage allotment,” leaving only 70 points to reflect solid approximate odds on the rest.

But if the linemaker in a 10-horse field makes the favorite 1-2, worth 67 points, he only has 53 points left to set a price on the remaining nine horses.

Meeting those parameters would, on balance, be unfair to bettors because the oddsmaker is forced to set very high odds on the remainder of the field to balance or “make the book.”

Today, politics makes it almost impossible to set a line honestly. Tracks don’t want their employee to embarrass the owners and trainers who fill races by making horses 50-1 or 100-1. I know two tracks where linemakers are not allowed to exceed 30-1.

The occasional championship making race with a large field will yield a 50-1 shot–our “limit” at the Armstrong Daily–but as a rule the oddsmaker will need to save points for contenders as a betting guide for the public.

This is the true purpose of the morning line; for an expert to rate the entrants in correct order approximating post time odds, not to predict what the price will be at post time. It has become that. However, old school was better.

Even today’s algorithms don’t have it easy when it comes to setting lines at sessions such as Gulfstream’s championship meet, or Saratoga, places where horses ship in from all over.

And try making an accurate line at Kentucky Downs for a 14-horse field of young turf maidens going 6-1/2 furlongs. This is why in our analyses why we refer to the prices as an “early line.”

With 24-hour entries in the old days, the “Scratch Sheet” was not available, if memory serves, until the night before, sometimes not until the morning of.

Today’s oddsmakers don’t have the latest track conditions, or scratches, rider changes, overweights, also-eligibles that draw in, etc., etc. Television analysts can best serve their audience by passing along useful betting information.

Fans and bettors alike would appreciate it more, and it wouldn’t potentially cost track employees their jobs.

COMING TUESDAY: Around Winner’s Circles for JULY 11

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26 Responses

  1. This has nothing to do with what you wrote but a TVG analyst once boasted about having never been to Belmont or any NY area track. I almost fell out of my chair when I heard this. This would be like The Tennis Channel on air personality bragging about never having set foot inside of Arthur Ashe or Louis Armstrong Stadiums. I’m not saying you have to come to Big Sandy for The Belmont Stakes but keep your NY bias to yourself. Some of the greatest moments in horse racing history have played out in NY and to boast that you have never been to one of their racetracks does little to convince me that you are at the top of your game, quite the contrary. I get it, you don’t like NY but if you cover horseracing you should definitely pay a visit to Aqueduct, Belmont and Saratoga. This analyst was not first string and maybe he just stays close to California, who knows. Like Sinatra sang, “I want to be a part of it…that old New York.” “Affirmed on the inside, Alydar on the outside, now Alydar puts a head in front-Chick Anderson, 1979 Belmont Stakes”

    1. Might have been a typo; got the quote correct, among other observations.

      “Put a head in front right in the middle of the stretch…”

  2. Agree that was a sophomoric comment. And I suppose the Fox exclusive situation with New York racing isn’t helping objectivity very much in Los Angeles. But criticizing without intimate knowledge of the process is unfair at best.

  3. Agree with you 1000% on the linemaking difficulties and how TVG analysts picking at low hanging fruit is pretty sad.

    On a positive note, the teams FS1/MSG have been putting together for the NYRA telecasts have been really really good. Maggie/Serling/Mig/Acacia/Jonathan Kinchen – and Tom Amoss when he is around – all really bring something and it is a real pleasure to enjoy the day at Belmont with these on air personalities.

    On a hugely negative note, i don’t know if it is getting worse of if it is just anecdotal recall, but it really feels like the massive odds jumps after the gates open is getting worse and worse. In the turf stake in Keeneland’s finale today, the 11 was 21/1 as they loaded into the gate. Next flash once the race started shows his 13/1 odds. That one isn’t nearly as bad as a couple of others I got hit with this weekend, and it is becoming extremely demoralizing to set odds lines, make DD and EXA overlay tables, and then watch the actual prices have absolutely no relation to those prices that were showing between 0 MTP and the gates opening. If it IS getting worse – and I strongly suspect that it is – I expect it happening at Saratoga to bring it even more attention. The odds jumps after gate open makes me wonder why I’m even bothering tracking overlay prices and using that to bet. And by extension, what would be the point of handicapping anymore?

    1. Thank you, going to run this as an item of its own, there’s been much talk about this especially of late and, of course, horse-racing Twitter.

  4. I loved Art Collector going into the race as far as ability went – but taking that next step is always difficult, so I wasn’t sure. He ran brilliantly …I love how fast and versatile he is. As a huge fan of Bernardini, I’m thrilled that he’s got another contender. I don’t think he’s as good as Tiz or HAP, but he’s my number 3 ranked horse. Thomas Drury is a great story; I’m so glad Mr. Lunsford kept the colt with him. Swiss Skydiver ran a fantastic race – she’s such a classy, game, gallant filly.

    I’m still extremely annoyed at the ride Corey Lanarie gave on Bama Breeze in the Transylvania. Again he got his long-striding, late-running talented gelding bottled up with tons of run and nowhere to go. He finished 6th, beaten half length plus several noses and necks. I would much rather he’d gone wide and stayed in the clear.

  5. Bets, you and are are simpatico when it comes to race watching, refreshing in an age of know-it-all’s who aren’t as sophisticated as the believe they are…

    The Bama Breeze is a tough situation. I feel your frustration but philosophically I want to save ground on turf at almost all costs when I can’t have that perfect outside-cover trip. I’d rather save ground and take my chances.

    As the late, great Mannie Kalish once counselled me, “next time just bet a little more.”

    1. Yes! Lately on boards I’m posting on it’s impossible to have a conversation with some people – they take the fun out of it. I block them because I have no time for insults and trollish comments. People forget that opinions make horse racing…

      Admittedly, I’d have to watch the race again to see if an opportunity opened up for Lanerie to go wide and in the clear X doing son might have cost him several lengths. He had the outside post – 11- so saving ground instead of remaining wide the whole way is a good thought…but yeah, it’s frustrating because Bama never really had the chance to run. Andy Serling always says that wins are overrated when it comes to evaluating how good a horse is, and this is just one example. Hopefully he’ll come out of the race in good shape and get an invitation to the Saratoga Derby; that long race is right up his alley.

  6. Good points all and good for you; there’s just no dialogue that can be had in today’s toxic environment.

    You’ve got me curious, good to watch the Bama video and try to get back to you…

  7. BTW, I thought Creed was good, although it didn’t necessarily wow me. But I did like the turn of foot on turn, as I recall, and I did like how he lengthened his stride late. Given Shug’s patience, he might develop very nicely indeed…

    1. Oh, I’m glad you got to see that race ! He acted up in the paddock quite a bit, and Shug thinks he was overly keen because it had only been 3 weeks since his last race. I thought it was a very solid race, and I’m ok that it wasn’t WOW because this is a late developing colt; I’m looking towards the future with him, and given how Honor Codes thrive with time, I’m certain that will be the case with him. He’s in great hands…and, speaking of, Shug said today that he’s pointing to the Jim Dandy with Creed, that he wanted to give him more time between races. I never really thought he’d push the colt to run a mile and a quarter in the Travers, so this makes a lot of sense. Interestingly, Jose Ortiz is so high in Creed that he wanted Shug to enter the colt in the Travers! He runs so much like Indy, it’s scary…

      Great, I look forward to hearing your thoughts!

      1. I can be touted, meaning acting up before the race in new information and explains some things. So Jose thinks Creed can handle Tiz the Law at 10 furlongs now? Assessment seems over the top.
        But the fact that Shug is talking Jim Dandy, that’s all I need to know. As you say, he doesn’t hurry things, and if thinks this colt can handle that assignment, that can alter my thinking. I think a few more replay reviews are in my future.
        All I need are a few more hours in a day… Thanks Bets

        1. Hey John.

          I don’t know if Jose thought he could or would have beaten Tiz, but outside of him, most of the potential entrants are relatively unproven. I assume he thought Creed would could certainly compete with those others…certainly it seems he thinks 10 furlongs is not an issue. My thinking is that the colt has plenty of potential and that his best days are ahead of him. The Jim Dandy should be a pretty good spot as the colts running in that race will either be late developers like Creed or those simply not good enough for the Derby. The allowance race he won was a pretty strong field, so Shug is probably thinking “why not point for a stakes instead of another allowance?”…

          Racing media must feel like accountants do during the tax crunch, lol…you’ve got so much going on!!!

          1. God bless for acknowledging that, I’m crazed. Haskell, Saratoga, etc. etc.

    1. Oh Ted, I’m so jealous…

      As far as I’m concerned, overlays only become apparent and truly worthwhile when the computer batchers make a mistake.

      Yes, prices do go up, but a preponderance of the winners mostly come down in odds, IMO

  8. John: With regard to the current TV “war”, I would again please ask Tom J his opinion as to how this whole situation plays out. We have already been subjected to a long, drawn out war between TVG and HRTV. It only ended when, as we learned from Luca Brasi, one side makes the other side “an offer it can’t refuse”. Now, instead of Stronach v. TVG, we have TVG & Stronach vs. NYRA/CDI & Fox. John, every sports league in the world maintains monopolistic control over its TV signal, and each league enjoys enormous profits from such an arrangement. Of course, in the every person for themselves world of horse racing, its a “dog eat dog” race to the bottom. For all of racing’s myriad problems, the parasitic nature of off-course/ advance deposit wagering, has completely undermined the most important source of revenue for owners and horsemen and women.

    John, for those of us who experienced the foolishness of the most parasitic relationship that ever existed in racing, to wit, that between NYCOTB and the NYRA, it appears that the current participants have learned nothing from that pathetic history. The present TV wars are just another unfortunate chapter of that long sad history. Both sides in the current dispute think that they will outthink and outlast the other, in some type of putrid, racing “Survivor” show. As usual, neither is right, and both are wrong (see, Buffalo Springfield). Eventually, John, its ends up being just like “Let that be your last battlefield”, the Star Trek episode where Frank Gorshin chases Lou Antonio all over the universe even though their entire world has been destroyed!

  9. Fram, I know you’re as inside as it can get–even though I don’t know who you are, and almost prefer it that way–and your take makes good sense based on history.

    But I must admit the Buffalo Springfield reference was impressive!

    (However, that pretty much came out OK in the end, right?)

  10. John: I am NOT a NYRA insider. What I will always be, however, is a Harvey Pack loyalist. Sometimes, I believe that the current NYRA is being “punished” for the prior NYRA’s terrible treatment that it imposed upon Harvey ( especially when they “retired” him). In the current lingo, I was a Harvey “fanboy”. Just one tiny example-and this is the absolute truth-I had spent Christmas week 1977, in Miami Beach. At that time, Calder ( remember that Track?), had a daily recap show on “Free” TV. A week later, at the old Big A grandstand-2nd floor ( also gone), I followed Harvey after his Paddock Club ( he still tries to fool people into thinking that he can’t handicap). As you know, his terrible back condition prevents Harvey from moving too quickly. While he was hobbling towards the clubhouse entry, I told him that I had just watched a Daily recap show from Calder, and suggested that it should be considered by NYRA for New York. As only Harvey could, he gave me a glancing look, and said “I’m already working on it Kid, but it will be on Cable”. Well John, now you know the story of the genesis of the show that would make you a TV star for years to come.
    PS- When NYRA “retired” Harvey, I wrote him a 15 page handwritten letter, telling him how important he was to me, as well as, to all of the Metropolitan area Horse Racing fans. He wrote a response to me telling me that my letter moved him a great deal. John, if I never cash another bet ( I hope Not), I will always feel like a winner because of that letter from Harvey. Also, “Framarco” was the king of the Inner Track that winter of 77/78.

  11. Fram, I remember the horse, of course. But my “insider” reference only meant that you seem to have more knowledge than the average NY fan when it comes to NYRA. Just expressed myself badly–on me.
    That sounds like Harvey. He loved to bark and to be curmudgeonly, but he was/is kind-hearted.
    Hey, he made both my and Steven Crist’s careers–reminded us of that on a routine basis. Do miss him and those days…

  12. John: No apology necessary. When my wife and I moved out from Brooklyn to Nassau, in 91, the first thing that I did was get Cablevision ( amazingly, we still didn’t have Cable in most of Brooklyn then), AND, a subscription to Newsday. I loved reading your column as well as Paul Moran ( May he Rest in Peace), and Marvin Kittman-but that’s another story.

  13. John, now that Del Mar has canceled this week, I think Shirreffs needs to seriously consider rerouting Honor A.P. to the Travers or Ellis Park Derby, don’t you agree? I know they intend to run next week, but that may not be possible, and it’s possible the Shared Belief might not be able to be run…What a mess.

    1. Bets,

      Not sure Mr. Shirreffs wants to ship outside SoCal until he has to.

      Won’t have much time for speculation these days with SPa opening. Hope to post my “Saratoga Diary” daily, something of a tradition since 1977.

      It will be different doing it remotely this year, but that’s our world now. We may miss some daily reports but all noteworthy races and issues, for all days, will be covered in one form or another.

      Happy opening day, one and all!

  14. Oh my goodness! Amazing article dude! Many thanks, However I am encountering difficulties with your RSS. I don’t know the reason why I am unable to subscribe to it. Is there anybody having similar RSS issues? Anyone who knows the answer will you kindly respond? Thanks!!

  15. Oh my goodness! Awesome article dude! Thank you so much, However I am encountering issues with your RSS. I don’t understand why I can’t join it. Is there anyone else having the same RSS problems? Anyone that knows the solution can you kindly respond? Thanx!!

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