CHAMPAGNE’S CAMPAIGNS: Derby Thoughts, A Stupid Rule, Trolling, and More

If you’ve been to my site frequently since its launch in March of last year, chances are you’re aware of a feature called “War Stories,” wherein I discuss some of the random, mind-boggling things that have happened to me in my life and professional career. I’ve had a lot of fun writing those pieces, and it’s meant a lot to me that others have enjoyed reading them.

This column represents an evolution of that concept. It’s the first in a recurring series I’m calling “Champagne’s Campaigns,” which will feature some stories, a few thoughts on matters that I didn’t necessarily want to put in standalone columns, and other stray thoughts that I felt the need to put into writing. Furthermore, it provides me with another outlet to speak to the people who enjoy coming to my site and reading the content that I produce.

I’m excited to roll this out, and I’m eager to hear what you have to say. Got an idea for a future such column? Submit it using the ‘contact’ feature this site provides, or send me a tweet. If it’s good, I’ll work it into a piece. For now, here’s what we’ve got!


This past weekend was a big one on the road to the 2018 Kentucky Derby. All season long, we’d been waiting for a dazzling effort from a high-profile 3-year-old in a major prep race. In the span of nine hours or so, we saw two.

When Audible dropped way back down the backstretch of the Florida Derby, I was concerned. Yes, the early pace was ridiculously fast (quick enough for 99-1 shot Millionaire Runner to snatch fifth and earn $28,000 on what was basically a freeroll for his connections), but that had never been his game. However, when the field hit the far turn, there was Audible, rocketing past the field and hitting the front as they straightened for the stretch drive.

Maybe he got the perfect setup, but any 3-year-old that shows this much versatility must be respected. Todd Pletcher won the Kentucky Derby last year with a late-developing horse that was just beginning to figure things out, and he’s got a real chance to do so for the second season in a row.

Meanwhile, earlier that day, Mendelssohn overwhelmed a mediocre field to win the UAE Derby for European powerhouse trainer Aidan O’Brien. He was making his first start on dirt, but he took to the new surface like a duck to water, making the lead and kicking away on the far turn before widening away to win by an Abu Dhabi city block.

What most impressed me was his stride and way of going. He did most of the widening while on the wrong lead, but when he switched to the correct lead in mid-stretch, he found yet another gear. If there’s any flaw to speak of here, it’s that I’d be much more impressed with the effort if the Meydan surface didn’t play very kindly to early speed all meet long. However, he earned a 106 Beyer Speed Figure in that win, which is the top such number by any 3-year-old to this point in the season. He’s shipped to the U.S. effectively once already, and if he comes over in good order, look out.

Unfortunately, amidst the head-turning performances, we may have also seen a huge defection from the Run for the Roses. McKinzie, who was last seen being DQ’d from a win in the San Felipe, was ruled out of the Santa Anita Derby, where he’d have had a highly-anticipated rematch with Bolt d’Oro. With McKinzie on the shelf, Justify has been re-routed to that race, and that could also mean a re-routing of Solomini, who had been pointed to Aqueduct’s Wood Memorial but could now be headed to the Arkansas Derby.


Shortly after 8 a.m. Pacific time on Sunday morning, I got woken up by a text message from my father, who still lives in New York. He had just gotten through the Gulfstream Park card, and logged on to his ADW of choice to find a reminder that residents of the state of New York were not allowed to bet on Easter Sunday.

This is ludicrous to me, on a number of counts (and yes, we’ll head into light political talk here; sorry about that). Firstly, what is a state’s government doing telling its residents that something legal 364 days of the year is somehow illegal on the 365th? Also, doesn’t this go against the whole “separation of church and state” thing that’s outlined in the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution?

Here’s what may be the most important question: Who, exactly, is clamoring for this archaic law to stay on the books? A study by the Public Religion Research Institute published in 2016 shows that New York’s Catholic and Protestant populations are dropping, and that 25% of New Yorkers do not affiliate themselves with any religion at all (up from 17% less than a decade earlier). Why should racing fans be penalized one day out of the year with this piece of legislation, one which seems to be getting more and more outdated with each passing year given the people that reside in that area?

The NTRA’s lobbying efforts have done spectacular work of late, most notably changing the government’s federal tax code to benefit horseplayers and improve churn at the betting windows. I’m using this space to call for the NTRA to direct some of its lobbying efforts to the state of New York, and to any other states where legislation like this exists. At last check, other forms of gambling (casinos, racinos, etc.) were not targeted by this legislation, which serves no positive purpose, denies fans a chance to participate in the pari-mutuel side of the game, and cuts ADW’s off from a valuable revenue stream.


As some of you know, I recently took a hardline stance against certain forms of online trolling. I can’t say for sure what set me off, but I’d seen enough from a number of people to where I decided enough was enough.

Like with anything else, there’s an art form to trolling people online. Certain things are acceptable, and certain things are not. Here’s a quick rundown of how to do this without making me want to put my fist through a wall.

Put your name/likeness on what you’re tweeting. If you tweet this stuff while using a fake name and/or a picture that obviously isn’t you, you’re a gutless coward whose opinions aren’t worth the time it takes to read them. Put another way, don’t be the clown that’s tweeting behind Frosted’s name and likeness, who I had to put on blast the other day.

Pick your spots. If you’re telling me I made a bad pick when my choice runs up the track, that’s reasonable (although even the best handicappers are wrong seven out of 10 times). If you’re trying to criticize me when I’ve picked the third choice in the field and it runs third, or if I’ve given out a price that didn’t win but outran his or her odds, that’s a different story.

Make a pick yourself once in a while. If all you use Twitter for is to bash handicappers, as opposed to contributing any content of your own, the handicappers you target will notice (and yes, we know when members of the peanut gallery make new accounts thinking their targets won’t realize it). Oddly, most of us are kindred spirits that get along with one another, and chances are we WILL laugh at you behind your back.

Personal insults are never OK. If you want to debate handicapping philosophies, ticket construction, or any other aspect of this great game, chances are I’m all for it. If you make it personal, that crosses a line, and there’s no going back.

Follow these four simple rules, and I guarantee you that what you put forward will get a response other than, “Wow, this person’s a jerk.”


I’ll finish things off with a story I haven’t told yet on this site. Here’s something you probably don’t know: My career likely turns out MUCH differently if not for the presence of ESPN reporter Sal Paolantonio.

On its surface, it’s an odd link, but it’s easily explained. Several of his children attended Ithaca College, and I was fortunate enough to interview him on a radio broadcast my senior year. He treated every college student he came across warmly and with tremendous respect, and he also won favor with all of us by driving our collective arch-nemesis, the sports information director nobody liked (read this for more information on why), absolutely bonkers simply by coming to the press box.

Sal took an interest in me, and he was friendly with Merrill Reese, the radio play-by-play man for the Philadelphia Eagles (and another one of the good guys). In addition to those duties, Merrill runs WBCB, a community radio station in Levittown, Pa., a small city northeast of Philadelphia (near Trenton, N.J.). Because of my ties to Sal, I landed an internship there in the summer of 2010.

In my time there, I did commercial spots, conducted a few interviews, assisted with promotions, rubbed shoulders with some really cool/talented people (shout out to Paul, Mike, Matt, Steve, Dan, Cassandra, and Wendy, among others!) and helped out with a Wednesday night sports show called “The Second Shift.” Most notably, though, I got to call regional play of that year’s Little League World Series, which was much less of a drive for me to get to than for the rest of the staff since it took place in Connecticut. My work there was part of what got me hired at Siena College, which in turn led to my job at The Saratogian, which in turn opened doors at HRTV, TVG, and The Daily Racing Form. That first door got opened in large part because Sal put in a good word for me, and I’ll always be grateful to him for that. Sal, if you’re out there: Thanks.

The internship was a blast, but there was a catch: It was a three-hour drive from my then-hometown! This meant waking up early once or twice a week, heading down the highway, and doing the same drive in reverse at night. The quickest way home took me down State Route 206 in New Jersey, which leads to I-287 and the New York State Thruway. If you’re not familiar, 206 goes through a lot of the state’s richest suburbs. These suburbs had police departments that did not exactly take kindly to old, cheap cars with out-of-state plates on them rolling through in the dead of night, as I’ll explain.

It’s just before midnight, and I’m driving on 206 through Hillsborough, N.J., which is just north of Princeton. Suddenly, a local cop gets on my tail, and he starts doing a few tricks to try to throw me off. He rides my back bumper, drops way back, and then creeps back up, trying to see how I’ll react. We get to a red light after several minutes, and I say to myself, “OK, he’s either going to blow past me, or his lights are going on and he’s pulling me over.”

Sure enough, lights and sirens come on, and he pulls me over. He asks for my license and registration, asks what I’m doing there…and then starts asking me about narcotics. Yes, folks, apparently in order for this cop working the graveyard shift to meet his quota, I was expected to fill the role of a suspected drug mule for doing nothing more than driving through town with New York plates on a 1998 Mercury Sable.

Quickly, he realizes this is going nowhere, and he busts out his flashlight. In scanning my car for drug paraphernalia that does not exist, he notices two cards of DRF past performances in my front seat. He asks if I’m a gambler, to which I respond that I’m heading to Saratoga twice later that week (once with my dad, once with my mom). Disgusted and disappointed, the cop mutters, “Well, good luck,” bolts to his car, and before I can even digest the situation, he’s gone off to bug someone else.

I’ve been lucky enough to do a lot of interesting things in my career, but that experience was among the weirdest ones I’ve ever been through. I’m a 21-year-old kid just trying to get home from work (albeit with a ridiculously long commute), and now I need to worry about local cops pulling me over just because they can? I loved my internship, and, as mentioned, it did a lot of good, but let’s just say I found a different way home after that!

Analysis, Selections, and Tickets: 2018 Florida Derby Day, PLUS: A Disturbing Trend in Racing That Must End

Before we get into my analysis of Saturday’s Rainbow 6 and late Pick Four sequences at Gulfstream Park, I need to expound on something I’ve been witnessing more and more of as of late. It’s a plague on the sport we enjoy, and it needs to stop.

Earlier this week, the connections of Australian superstar Winx announced that the mare would not ship to Royal Ascot. All hell promptly broke loose on Twitter, with plenty of insult-lobbing from all corners of the world saying that Team Winx was ducking top-class competition.

Horse racing has a major problem, and this situation typifies it. We crave horses that turn into winning machines, ones that strut their stuff on a regular basis and leave no doubt about how good they are. However, when we get horses like that, we’re often very quick to tear them down.

I wrote at length about Wise Dan, who ran into this phenomenon when his connections opted to keep their turf buzzsaw on turf rather than try him on dirt. This is the same concept. Winx has mowed down all comers over the course of her 24-race win streak, including world-class horses like Highland Reel. Why can’t we simply appreciate her for what she’s doing and be glad that we’re seeing her do it?

In a bizarre twist, while some of us insist on this strange behavior, we also spend time building up horses that have lost. Zenyatta gained the most respect not for any of her victories, but in coming up short to Blame in her career finale. Many think Easy Goer was superior to Sunday Silence despite losing three out of four meetings with that rival. Heck, Bodemeister’s stud career was built not on his runaway win in the Arkansas Derby, but off of his LOSS in the Kentucky Derby.

To be fair, part of handicapping involves figuring out horses that can improve off of defeats, and ones coming off of wins that may be vulnerable. That’s part of the pursuit of value that every handicapper undertakes when dissecting a card. However, none of that has any bearing in assessing a horse’s accomplishments during that horse’s career.

Winx is great, and her bona fides are not lessened by her connections opting not to go to Royal Ascot. To those who hurled insults and think those connections owe anything to them beyond doing what they feel is best for their champion, shame on you. You’re pushing an ideology that results in no-win situations for the game, horses, and horsemen, one where champions somehow sully their reputations by not winning as authoritatively as fans think they should.

Now that we’ve got that out of the way, let’s take a look at Saturday’s Rainbow 6 sequence at Gulfstream. I’ll dissect the races involved, as well as offer a late Pick Four ticket that gives us a bit more coverage.

$0.20 Rainbow 6: Race #9

R9: 2,5,6,7,8
R10: 7
R11: 1,2,10
R12: 3,6,8,9,12
R13: 2,7,8
R14: 8

225 Bets, $45

If you’re going to play an economical ticket, I think you need at least two singles. I’ll take stands in the second and sixth legs, and hope that I’ve got enough coverage elsewhere.

The ninth is a maiden race going long on turf, and I wish I had the money to buy the race. I’m going five-deep, and while I’m using #7 ART COLLECTION (the 9/5 morning line favorite), I don’t think he’s any cinch, especially going to a cold barn. My top selection is actually #6 DAWOOD, who debuted going nine furlongs. That’s never an easy task, and rating well behind a slow pace certainly didn’t help. Dawood gets Luis Saez here, and he’s bred to be a good one. If he takes a step forward, he’s certainly good enough to win.

My first single comes in the 10th, an optional claiming event that’s drawn some classy horses. The one I really like is #7 READY FOR RYE, whose last race was too bad to be true. He’s shown plenty of ability, and if he’s back to his usual form, I think he’ll be tough to beat. He’s got enough tactical speed to sit close to the pace, and he may get first run turning for home beneath Jose Ortiz.

The third leg is the Grade 3 Honey Fox. #2 LULL and #10 ON LEAVE are both classy horses, but I also need to use #1 GLORY TO KITTEN, who has never lost over this turf course. She does take a step up in class, but I simply can’t throw a horse out that has never tasted defeat at Gulfstream.

The fourth leg is the Grade 2 Gulfstream Park Oaks, and I’m taking the stance that this race sets up for a closer. My top pick (and not just because I used to work with a part-owner; hi, Drew!) is #9 PRINCESS WARRIOR, who prepped for this race with an OK effort in the Grade 3 Herecomesthebride on turf. Her record looks much better if you draw a line through the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Fillies, and I think she’ll come rolling late.

The 13th is the Grade 2 Pan American, and I’m three-deep. #8 SADLER’S JOY will be favored, and I’m using him, but I hesitate to single a deep closer in spots like these. I’m also using #2 BULLARDS ALLEY and #7 BIGGER PICTURE, and I’m surprised the latter is 6-1 on the morning line. He won the Grade 1 United Nations last year, and while he’s got a strong closing kick, it helps that he can also sit fairly close to the pace.

We finish things off with the Grade 1 Florida Derby, and I’ll hope to cap things off with a single. #8 AUDIBLE ran really well in taking the Grade 2 Holy Bull, and a repeat effort would mean another horse likely has to take a big step forward to beat him. I think he’ll be very tough in here, and hopefully, he can get this ticket home.

$0.50 Pick Four: Race 11

R11: 1,2,3,10
R12: 3,5,6,8,9,12
R13: 2,3,7,8
R14: 8

96 Bets, $48

I’m still singling Audible to end this sequence, but I’ll add a few horses before that in hopes of getting to the payoff leg. I’ll throw in #3 STORMY VICTORIA in the 11th, #5 DAISY in the 12th, and #3 HI HAPPY in the 13th. If you’ve got the money to add these horses into the Rainbow 6, feel free. I wanted to keep the cost of that ticket down to a reasonable level, though, and this was the compromise I came up with.

ANALYSIS: Florida Derby, Louisiana Derby, and Pick Four tickets


By many measures, #11 Gunnevera is the best horse in the race. He was a runaway winner of the Fountain of Youth, and he should have plenty of pace in front of him to set up for his late kick. However, the post position fogs things up just a bit. With such a short run to the first turn, it will be imperative for all-world jockey Javier Castellano to get inside quickly and save as much ground as possible.

As such, Gunnevera, while imposing, is no cinch, and my strategy will be to use him, but not key him. The other horse I will use heavily is #1 State of Honor, who draws very favorably given his early speed. The Mark Casse trainee ran third behind McCraken two back and second behind Tapwrit last out, so there’s back class here. I’m not quite sure we’ll get his 8-1 morning line odds, but he won’t be one of the top two choices, and if he can capitalize on Three Rules’s outside post position and get a jump on that rival, he could lead them a long way.

I will key those two horses on top of a few others in the exotics. I’m by no means in love with likely second choice #4 Always Dreaming, who has had perfect trips in his last two outings, but it’s prudent to use that one underneath as a saver. I’ll round out some of my wagers with a few longshots, one of whom is a big price. #7 Unbridled Holiday was third behind Always Dreaming in that one’s last race, but surrendered a lot of ground while racing wide that day. He’s 30-1 on the morning line and may go off a bigger price than that, but he adds blinkers, had a big work on March 25th, and could absolutely clunk up for a piece of it. Additionally, #8 Impressive Edge tries two turns for the first time after an impressive win going seven furlongs last time out. If there’s competition up front, he’ll certainly be one of the ones to benefit the most.


$4 exacta box: 1,11 – $8
$1 exacta key: 1,11/1,4,7,8,11 – $8
$0.10 superfecta: 1,11/1,4,7,8,11/1,4,7,8,11/1,4,7,8,11 – $4.80


This one seems pretty formful on paper. #8 Girvin won the Risen Star by a clear margin, and he’s very much the horse to beat. The third and fourth-place finishers will try him again in this spot, as will a few new shooters.

I can only see one horse in here potentially beating your likely heavy favorite. That’s #6 Guest Suite, who was left with far too much to do in the Risen Star. He rallied to finish fourth, but seems to have come out of the race extremely well. He’s posted three excellent works for trainer Neil Howard, and it’s not illogical to think that a horse who has improved in every race to date will continue to do so.


$10 exacta box: 6,8 – $20


$0.50 Pick Four: Race #2, Gulfstream Park

R2: 3,4,9,11,12
R3: 1,6
R4: 2,3
R5: 1,4

40 bets, $20

RATIONALE: The second at Gulfstream may be the best betting race on the card, with several class-droppers getting horrible posts. Meanwhile, I think a few longshots, specifically #3 Bella Sunrise and #4 Lover’s Key, have big shots in there. The second leg is a tough race to decipher, but #1 Capital City is very appealing if you can forgive his last-out clunker, and #6 Over the Limit cuts back to a sprint and won three in a row very recently. If the last two races are formful, I think this could be a fruitful Pick Four.

$0.50 Pick Four: Race #7, Gulfstream Park

R7: 5,6
R8: 1,2,4,5,7,9
R9: 6
R10: 5

12 bets, $6

RATIONALE: I think the first leg sets up for a stone closer, and my top pick is actually #6 The Truth or Else, who sits at a square 10-1 on the morning line. If you toss out his two-turn races, which are mostly duds, you’re left with a horse that stacks up much more favorably than what his standing will likely be on the tote board. I’m spreading in the eighth (if you want to spend a few extra bucks and hit the “ALL” button, go ahead), and I’m finishing with two popular singles. #6 Luke’s Alley goes in allowance company in the ninth, while #5 Celestine looms large in the 10th given her talent and likely nature as the race’s lone speed. It may not pay much, but if we get some value in the first two legs, I think the payoff could surprise you.

$0.50 Pick Four: Race #8, Fair Grounds

R9: 1,6,8,11
R10: 6
R11: 6,8

80 bets, $40

RATIONALE: I’m maxing out my usual $40 budget here, because the first two races are TOUGH. There are 10 runners in the New Orleans, and I could make a convincing case for seven or eight of them. The Muniz Memorial Handicap is no joke, either, and while I like #8 Kasaqui a fair bit, there are others there you need to use that have ample experience over this turf course (plus 15-1 shot #11 Special Ops, since his last two races have been excellent and he should be flying late). I’ll single #6 Farrell in the Fair Grounds Oaks, and I’ll use my top two in the Louisiana Derby to finish things out.