THE DARK DAY FILES: Trying to Make Sense of the 3-Year-Old Male Division

I was really, REALLY hoping I didn’t have to write this column.

You see, like pretty much everyone else, I’ve been hoping for months that a 3-year-old would separate himself from the rest of the division. Briefly, Always Dreaming did that, but he was knocked off the mountaintop just as quickly as he ascended it. Ever since the Preakness, the division has been shrouded in confusion, with big efforts often followed by duds that only serve to make things more difficult to decipher.

In what doubled as a dream come true for the NYRA marketing department, the three winners of the three Triple Crown races lined up in last Saturday’s Travers. Much like the last time this happened (1982), though, the race wasn’t won by one of those horses. West Coast, whose lone graded stakes win before the Midsummer Derby came at Los Alamitos against what would charitably be called a mediocre bunch, went wire-to-wire under Hall of Fame jockey Mike Smith and earned the top Beyer Speed Figure of any 3-year-old router to this point in the season.

I’ll attempt to decipher the division here. Essentially, this acts as a quick and dirty summary of the main players, as well as what they likely need to do to emerge as a contender for the division’s Eclipse Award. I only considered horses that had won at least one Grade 1 race in 2017, which means horses like 2-3 Travers finishers Gunnevera and Irap, as well as Jim Dandy winner Good Samaritan, are out.

Disagree? Think I missed something? Shoot me a message, and I’ll be happy to discuss what I think.

West Coast

Claim to Fame: Beat the winners of all three Triple Crown races in the Travers.

Drawbacks: Hasn’t done much else to this point. He was visually impressive in both stakes wins earlier in the year, but he didn’t beat many quality foes in either spot.

Eclipse Chances: High. A win in either the Pennsylvania Derby (against 3-year-olds) or the Jockey Club Gold Cup (against older horses) would give him a resume very few in the division could match. Fun fact: If West Coast wins the award, this will mark the third time in the last five years that it has gone to a horse that did not win a Triple Crown race. Before Will Take Charge won in 2013 despite lacking such a win, the last thoroughbred to pull it off was Tiznow, who did so in 2000.

Always Dreaming

Claim to Fame: Won the Florida Derby and Kentucky Derby back-to-back, both by daylight.

Drawbacks: Has failed to win any of his three subsequent starts. I’m a bit higher on his Jim Dandy than most (he did salvage third over a very tiring track), but his Preakness and Travers efforts were lousy.

Eclipse Chances: Higher than you may think. As of this writing, no active 3-year-old can match his top-end wins, and even if he never runs again (which is possible, maybe even likely), there’s a chance he’ll end the year as this season’s only 3-year-old male with multiple Grade 1 wins on dirt. That would make him a popular “hold your nose” vote.


Claim to Fame: Won the Belmont, and did so in impressive fashion. He and runner-up Irish War Cry were well clear of the rest of the field.

Drawbacks: He’s only won twice, and while he didn’t run terribly in the Travers, he was fourth behind three horses that had previously combined for zero Grade 1 victories to this point in the season.

Eclipse Chances: Medium. There’s a chance he needed the Travers off a 12-week layoff, and a run in the Jockey Club Gold Cup would mean a chance at another Grade 1 victory at the scene of his greatest triumph to date. Such a win would give him two signature victories and would put him squarely in the middle of the conversation ahead of the Breeders’ Cup.

Oscar Performance

Claim to Fame: Has won back-to-back Grade 1 races, and is the only 3-year-old male in the country besides Always Dreaming with two such wins on his resume this year.

Drawbacks: He’s a turf horse.

Eclipse Chances: None most years, but this year, he’s got a shot. If ever there was a year for an unconventional winner of this award, it’s 2017, and a win over older horses would do wonders for his candidacy. He could get such a victory in the Grade 1 Joe Hirsch, provided his connections opt to bypass the Grade 3 Hill Prince, which boasts a similar purse and (likely) much less in the way of opposition. If he wins the Hirsch and runs well in the Breeders’ Cup (no easy task, since the Turf’s distance would be uncharted territory for him and the Mile is never an easy race to win), it would be impossible to keep him out of this discussion.

Classic Empire

Claim to Fame: When he’s right, he’s probably the best horse in this division in terms of pure talent. He won the Arkansas Derby, was the victim of a lousy trip when fourth in the Kentucky Derby, and just missed in the Preakness…

Drawbacks: …but he hasn’t been seen since. His connections had eyed the Pennsylvania Derby, but those plans fell through.

Eclipse Chances: Low. On one hand, if this horse hangs on in the Preakness, we’re probably not having this conversation (it’s at least much more concentrated in nature). On the other hand, how can one consider this horse a contender when he hasn’t raced since mid-May? Maybe he runs again in either the Breeders’ Cup or the Cigar Mile. Maybe he doesn’t and we’ve seen the last of him. If the latter is the case, it’s a real shame.

Practical Joke

Claim to Fame: Won the Allen Jerkens on Travers Day, and an argument can be made that he’s the best 3-year-old in the country at what he does.

Drawbacks: What he does is run one turn. He’s not the same horse going a conventional, two-turn route of ground.

Eclipse Chances: Low, and it’s no fault of the horse or his connections. If the Breeders’ Cup Dirt Mile was contested around one turn (like it will be next year at Churchill Downs), or if the Sprint was seven furlongs and not six, he would be in a great spot. However, he’s between distances and will need to overcome the lack of an ideal race on racing’s biggest weekend. A Sprint win would almost certainly vault him to the head of the class, and a Dirt Mile win would also be helpful, but if he loses either race and salvages the Cigar Mile or Malibu, would that be enough of a resume? I don’t think so.


Claim to Fame: Won the Grade 1 Haskell over a solid group, which included next-out Jerkens winner Practical Joke and next-out Shared Belief winner Battle of Midway. Earlier this season, he also captured the Louisiana Derby and Risen Star Stakes.

Drawbacks: Misfired in both the Travers and the Kentucky Derby, which were prime opportunities for him to show he belongs at the top of this division.

Eclipse Chances: Slim. Most years, he’d already be eliminated, counted out as a nice horse, but not one of the best. However, if he wins the Pennsylvania Derby, all of a sudden, we’ve got a horse that’s won two Grade 1’s, two Grade 2’s, and a lot of money. Is it unlikely? Yes, but then again, so was his Haskell win.

Cloud Computing

Claim to Fame: Reeled in Classic Empire in the Preakness, giving Chad Brown his first win in a Triple Crown race.

Drawbacks: He’s done nothing since then, throwing in two clunkers at Saratoga.

Eclipse Chances: Slim to none. If he comes back with a winning effort in a Breeders’ Cup prep race, we can more easily throw out the Saratoga races. However, those races were dreadful, and it’s tough to swallow something like that in this sort of a discussion.

2017 Preakness Stakes Analysis/Selections, Plus Pick Four/Five Tickets

Coming out of the Kentucky Derby starting gate two weeks ago, Irish War Cry and Rajiv Maragh took a hard left turn and delivered a cross body block that would’ve made Ricky Steamboat, Tito Santana, and Bayern proud. For Classic Empire, the result was the loss of any chance to win the Run for the Roses, and that he somehow managed to salvage fourth despite the incident can be seen, in hindsight, as a minor miracle.

Two weeks later, Classic Empire is back in the Preakness, the second leg of horse racing’s Triple Crown. He’ll line up directly outside of Kentucky Derby winner Always Dreaming, who had nothing short of a perfect trip in his victory earlier this month. That’s not to demean Always Dreaming’s victory, or the stellar jobs done by trainer Todd Pletcher and jockey John Velazquez, but what this means is that Always Dreaming could be a wagering underlay for stand-alone, win-only purposes.

I’ll be using both of those horses in multi-race exotics wagers. However, for the purposes of win-only wagers, I think Classic Empire is the play in the Preakness. He was my Derby pick, and even though he didn’t win that day, he ran a winning race. Given the smaller field and more of a chance to show his tactical speed, he’ll have every opportunity to turn the tables Saturday in Maryland.

With that in mind, here are my multi-race exotics tickets for Preakness Day at Pimlico. There are plenty of opportunities to take swings, and the guaranteed pools mean that if you hit, you’ll likely be rewarded handsomely.

$0.50 Pick Five: Race #2

R2: 2
R3: 1,6,8
R4: 2,3,5
R5: 1*,2,5,6,7
R6: 3,6 (15)

90 or 108 bets, $45 or $54

Many aspects of this ticket require some explanation. First of all, a Pick Four starts in the third, and if you want to play it, you can, for the same amount. As mentioned yesterday, given a single in the first leg of a Pick Five and the substantially-lesser takeout, it makes no sense not to play THAT wager instead.

My single is #2 Commend, whose form going short on turf is very good. He missed by a head three back in stakes company, and it’s safe to assume something went wrong two back, because we didn’t see him for nearly six months. His comeback race was much longer than he wants to run, and he gets his desired trip Saturday in his second start off a layoff.

Finally, you’ll notice an asterisk by #1 Elusive Joni, who I’ve used in the fifth at Pimlico. That means that, if #15 Barney Rebel draws into the sixth and you need a horse to throw out to keep costs down, that’s the one I’d recommend. If you keep her on the ticket, it becomes a $67.50 ticket, and that’s too expensive for me to comfortably give out.

$0.50 Pick Four: Race #6

R6: 1,3,6 (15)
R7: 7
R9: 5

39 or 52 bets, $19.50 or $26

The value of the ticket is contingent upon whether or not Barney Rebel draws in. Because I had the budget to do so, I also threw in #1 Jose Sea View, who was a tough omission from my Pick Five ticket.

My two singles will likely be heavy favorites. Recruiting Ready has been focused on sprints since a failed attempt going a mile three back, and his runaway win in the Bachelor was extremely impressive. Speaking of impressive, Whitmore is undefeated in sprints, and he’ll likely be favored in the Maryland Sprint, which doubles as the payoff leg of this sequence.

The presence of those two singles allows me to hit the “ALL” button in the eighth, the James W. Murphy. Simply put, I don’t have a clue about this race, so I’m hoping we get a price home between two short prices. If that happens, this Pick Four could pay pretty handsomely.

$0.50 Pick Five: Race #9

R9: 5
R10: 2,3,6,7,10
R11: 2,9
R12: 2,4,7,10
R13: 4,5

80 bets, $40

This is another instance where I feel the need to give out a Pick Five ticket, since there’s a single in the opening leg. That’s Whitmore, who was profiled above. Having said that, you may want to play both the Pick Five and the Pick Four, as the all-stakes Pick Four boasts a guaranteed pool of $2 million.

The Gallorette (Race #10) and the Dixie (Race #12) are both wide-open races. The favorites may not be much more than 3-1 or 7/2 in either spot, which, combined with guaranteed pools, makes for a VERY juicy sequence. The 11th is the Sir Barton, and while Hedge Fund merits respect, my top pick is Time to Travel, who adds Lasix and John Velazquez in his second start for trainer Michael Matz.

We end with the Preakness, and I’m using the two logicals on my Pick Five ticket. However, the course of action I’d recommend, if you’re playing both tickets, is to single whoever your top choice is in the Preakness so you can spread further in some of the other races in the sequence. Want to hit the “ALL” button in either the Gallorette or the Dixie to be safe, or add a few horses into the Sir Barton? Do that. There’s still substantial overlap between your tickets to where you could hit both. It’s all a matter of picking the right horse in the second leg of the Triple Crown. No pressure!

2017 Kentucky Derby Analysis, PLUS Three Pick Four Tickets

I’ve never been accused of mincing words, and I’m not going to start now. Friday was, um…NOT a good day for yours truly. On Twitter, I likened it to the start of the Drago/Rocky fight in Rocky IV, when the big Russian is beating the daylights out of the champ. Hopefully, Saturday is akin to the second half of the fight, where Rocky comes back, beats the giant, and ends the Cold War.

I’ll start by analyzing the main event, the 2017 Kentucky Derby. It’s one of the most wide-open renewals in recent memory, with every single horse seeming to have some sort of redeeming factor and massive flaw. You’re likely to get a square price on whichever horse you like, and the exotics wagers figure to be very enticing as well.

My top pick is Classic Empire. It’s by no means a top pick made with tons of conviction, or with a proclamation that he can’t lose. However, he overcame a tough trip to win the Arkansas Derby over a solid group. He was shuffled back, raced between horses most of the way around the track, and came flying late in such a way that it convinced most Saturday’s distance will not be a problem. If he can negotiate a comfortable trip (always the biggest ‘if’ in any Derby), I think he’s the horse to beat.

Having said that, I’ll be going five-deep in all multi-race exotics wagers I play. Three of the other horses are ones who will receive plenty of support at the windows. Always Dreaming is undefeated around two turns, McCraken loves Churchill Downs and should improve off the Blue Grass, and Irish War Cry’s record fits the mold of a Derby winner if you can toss his unconscionable clunker in the Fountain of Youth.

The fifth horse I’m using is my price horse, the one who would potentially make Saturday a very good day for me. That’s Tapwrit, and if you’re willing to throw out the Blue Grass, his huge price doesn’t make much sense. The 10-furlong distance should fit him like a glove given his pedigree, he’s won over a wet track before, and he turned in a flashy workout at Churchill last week leading up to the Derby. I want every bit of him at his likely price, even after his lousy race at Keeneland last month.

With all of that in mind, let’s shift gears to a few Pick Four plays for Saturday. These are posted with the same caveats as Friday’s: These tickets assume all races carded for the turf course stay there. If they get rained off, updated versions of my tickets (or advice to pass the sequences entirely) will be posted on my Twitter page.

$0.50 Pick Four: Race #2

R2: 2,4,7,8
R3: 1,5
R4: 1,5,6,7
R5: 1

32 bets, $16

This isn’t an expensive ticket, and I really like this sequence. The first and third legs are strong betting races, and I’ve got confidence in the second and fourth legs. Flashy Jewel will likely go off shorter than his 8-1 morning line in the third, and I think he’s the lone speed horse in the race. Part of me wanted to single him, but Rocket Time possesses considerable back class and merits respect coming back to a track he loves.

The fifth race features a major spot play, assuming we stay on the grass. Forge ran a strong race in his American debut last month at Keeneland, which doubled as his first race since September. He’s run up against some very tough European competition, and he faces an optional claiming group that doesn’t appear very imposing. I’ll gladly take 7/2 if I can get it, although that’s another morning line that seems very generous.

$0.50 Pick Four: Race #5

R5: 1
R6: 5,7
R7: 1,6

48 bets, $24

Forge starts off this sequence, and then things get tricky. Finest City and Carina Mia head this year’s Humana Distaff, which features some other strong sprinters, and I’m hoping I can skate through only going two-deep. I’m also only going two-deep in the Distaff Turf Mile following the scratch of Miss Temple City; Linda’s been working well for Ian Wilkes, and Roca Rojo goes out for Chad Brown.

This brings us to the Pat Day Mile, which gave me headaches of increasing intensity every time I looked at it. I can make cases for almost every runner in what’s now a 12-horse field, so I’m hitting the ALL button. I know I’m going to get some heat for this on Twitter, but the fact is that I have absolutely no confidence in any opinion I could present here, and given that I can come in well under my soft budget ($40) by using each runner, that’s what I’m going to do.

$0.50 Pick Four: Race #9

R9: 2,4,7,10
R10: 2
R11: 2,6,8,9
R12: 5,14,15,16,17

80 bets, $40

In one of several animated Twitter discussions on Friday, I mentioned that I really like Pick Fours that act as glorified odds boosts on short-priced horses. Everyone wants to catch a big price, sure, but if you can take a heavily-bet favorite, single that horse in a Pick Four, and beat a favorite or two along the way, the sequence essentially turns into an odds boost. If said single is 4/5 and jogs after you play it to win, you won’t get much of a rate of return. However, if a $40 Pick Four ticket like this one hits and returns $300 or so, all of a sudden, you’ve turned that 4/5 into odds closer to 6-1. That’s value, and that’s my strategy here.

My single comes in the 10th race, the Churchill Downs. Masochistic burned me in his 2017 debut, but there are plenty of reasons to back him here. He’s easily the top early speed on paper, and if the track is playing to speed (as it often does on Kentucky Derby Day), he’s going to be very difficult to beat. This is not an easy sequence, and you need to single somewhere so as to spread in the other three legs. There are worse horses to do that with than a horse that could make an easy lead in a race without much other speed.

We dissected the Derby above, so I’ll go through the other two legs here. In the American Turf, I prefer closers Big Score and Good Samaritan, but if one of Oscar Performance or Conquest Farenheit gets away, they may be tough to catch. Meanwhile, in the Woodford Reserve, I most prefer Beach Patrol, although he’s no cinch in a wide-open betting race. Divisidero is 2-for-2 at Churchill, and both Bal a Bali and Enterprising (subbed in for the scratched World Approval) are good enough to win on their best days as well.