Saratoga Race Course Analysis, Selections, and Bankroll: 8/4/17

BANKROLL

BANKROLL: $967.25

I had something witty cued up for this section before the fatal breakdown of Fall Colors in Thursday’s steeplechase race. No matter how long you’ve been in this game, there’s never a point where that stuff doesn’t affect you. My heart goes out to the connections of the fallen horse, who went through unimaginable pain yesterday.

One quick thing: If you think steeplechase racing is at fault for this, you’re wrong. Science has shown that most steeplechase falls are much, much safer than those that occur on the flat, and this part of the game gives many at-risk horses a second career. Being sad about the breakdown is rational, as is abstaining from betting steeplechase races because of the added jumps involved. Blaming the nature of those races for the breakdown we saw Thursday is not.

THURSDAY’S RESULTS: We were alive to some pretty nice doubles heading into the fifth, but the horses we used in that race did not include 15-1 shot Tarawa, who won going away. As such, we dropped $30.

FRIDAY’S PLAY: I’ll focus on the eighth race of a very difficult card. #4 PETROV was nearly my best bet of the day given his back class, and given the big field that will go postward, we may get his 3-1 morning line price. I’ll put $5 on him to win and place and key him in $2 exacta plays that use him above and below #7 POCKET SQUARE, #9 PORTFOLIO MANAGER, #10 DIVINE INTERVENTIO, and #11 LENSTAR.

TOTAL WAGERED: $26

ANALYSIS/SELECTIONS

Best Bet: Switzerland, Race 3
Longshot: Team Colors, Race 5

R1

Sand City
Corey Q
Lightworker

SAND CITY: Has run just one bad race on dirt, and that effort was followed by a six-month layoff, so it’s safe to assume something went wrong that day. This barn has quietly had a very strong start to the meet; COREY Q: Drops down in class and goes back to dirt for one of the top barns on the grounds. Her debut on dirt wasn’t bad, but demand value on this one before moving forward; LIGHTWORKER: Was a good second in her debut at Delaware against weaker foes. This is a class test for her, but she could improve at second asking and may be a bit of a price.

R2

Luna Rising
Bahnahno
Talkn Til Midnight

LUNA RISING: Showed interest early on in the meet against better before fading late. She was up close to a pretty fast pace that day, and she should sit an easier trip here; BAHNAHNO: Takes a huge class drop and may benefit from some speed having signed on. The rail isn’t ideal for her running style, but the faster they go early, the better this one figures to like it; TALKN TIL MIDNIGHT: Cuts back in distance, returns to dirt, and is another taking a big drop in class. This barn must be respected in spots like these.

R3

Switzerland
Fully Vested (MTO)
Sethary

SWITZERLAND: Completely missed the break last time out, and as such, you can draw a line through that effort. His dam was a strong turf runner, so he should take to the lawn just fine; SETHARY: Woke up in his turf debut, running a good second against maiden claimers. This is a tougher field, but he does figure to be the main speed; FACTORIAL: Probably needed his last race, which came off a layoff of nearly five months. The top three finishers from that event have all come back to win at next asking. DIRT SELECTIONS: SWITZERLAND, FULLY VESTED, UNCLE PANCHO.

R4

Pauseforthecause
Big Expense
My Roxy Girl

PAUSEFORTHECAUSE: Has worked well ahead of her unveiling. This barn isn’t the best with first-time starters, but this one was bred to be a real runner (her dam was Grade 1-placed); BIG EXPENSE: Is another who may need a race, but she’s flashed potential in several downstate drills. The ones that have run before don’t impress me much, so I’ll use this firster at a bit of a price; MY ROXY GIRL: Probably has the most potential to move up of all the runners who have race experience. The jockey switch to Castellano is huge, especially since he doesn’t ride for this barn much.

R5

Schivarelli (MTO)
Forge
Team Colors

FORGE: Broke through last time out at Churchill, earning a 100 Beyer Speed Figure. He’s flashed potential dating back to his time in Europe, and he may be reaching a high level; TEAM COLORS: Would be a tremendous value play at anywhere close to the morning line. He comes back to the turf, where he’s run a number of high-quality races, and he gets significant class relief; MONSTER BEA: Is another accomplished turf runner who drops in from graded stakes company. This barn got off to a cold start to the meet, but this gelding is a contender in this spot. DIRT SELECTIONS: SCHIVARELLI, TEAM COLORS, LINE JUDGE.

R6

Tizelle
Barrel of Dreams
Style Drift

TIZELLE: Came back running off the long layoff, winning an entry-level allowance downstate. She’s done very little wrong in three career starts, and we may not have seen the best of her yet; BARREL OF DREAMS: Loves Saratoga, having won here twice a year ago. Her last-out effort was an improvement, and her best race could win this; STYLE DRIFT: Hasn’t been seen in nearly two years, but did not run a bad race in four starts before the extended break, and the Chad Brown barn merits respect. DIRT SELECTIONS: YOUNG ANNA LEE, BARREL OF DREAMS, IRON MIZZ.

R7

Lifelong Dreamer
Curtis
Italian Syndicate

LIFELONG DREAMER: Probably lost all chance at the break last time out in his search for a third straight win. Gary Gullo does excellent work with new acquisitions, and top rider Jose Ortiz will be in the irons; CURTIS: Takes a big drop in class for aggressive connections after running against some tough 3-year-olds in each of his last two starts. The recent bullet drill could indicate he’s sitting on a nice race; ITALIAN SYNDICATE: Was a spectacular flop at 3/5 when last seen. He was claimed out of that race by a high-percentage barn, and if you draw a line through that race, he certainly fits.

R8

Petrov
Divine Interventio
Pocket Square

PETROV: Spent most of the spring on the Derby trail and has run against graded stakes foes in each of his last five starts. He was fourth behind likely Allen Jerkens favorite American Anthem at this distance two back, and a similar race wins this; DIVINE INTERVENTIO: Hasn’t run a bad race since cutting back to sprint distances last fall. He was third behind Coal Front in his last start and should be coming late; POCKET SQUARE: Went wire-to-wire in his first start off a long layoff. His July 22nd work was very sharp, and given his relative inexperience, we may get a price.

R9

Bricks and Mortar
Yoshida
Snap Decision

BRICKS AND MORTAR: Is a perfect 3-for-3 and beat several of these foes last time out in a stakes race downstate. He won going two turns in his debut and could be another top-class turf runner for this barn; YOSHIDA: May not have wanted the Belmont Derby distance, and the slow pace set in front of him didn’t help. He showed tons of talent in his stakes win two back and cannot be ignored; SNAP DECISION: Was second behind my top pick two back and most recently won a solid optional claimer. The runner-up has since come back to win, and this one could sit a perfect stalking trip here.

R10

Set Me Up
Calculated Risker
Captain Kidd

SET ME UP: Needs lots of luck to draw in but looks imposing on the drop in class if he does. His turf races last year against straight maidens were not bad, and these connections mean business; CALCULATED RISKER: Also drops in class off of a solid last-out effort going shorter. This barn hasn’t gotten off to a great start, but this seems like a logical spot for this morning-line favorite; CAPTAIN KIDD: Was handed no favors when rating off of a slow pace last time out, yet rallied to be beaten just a length. Two turns is a question mark, but this gelding seems to be in good form. DIRT SELECTIONS: ARTHUR AVENUE, MR. MASSENA, CALCULATED RISKER.

A Salute to Ben’s Cat, PLUS: An Idea to Honor Warhorses Like Him

In sports, certain athletes come along and have careers that will almost certainly never be replicated. It’s even better when you know that as one such career is unfolding, and it makes everything much easier to appreciate when that career comes to an end.

Beloved 11-year-old veteran Ben’s Cat was retired Tuesday following an off-the-board finish in Saturday’s Mister Diz Stakes at Laurel Park. It’s fitting that the race served as his finale, since he won it an incredible six straight years from 2010 through 2015. He was managed in impeccable fashion by Hall of Fame trainer King Leatherbury, and while nobody would ever say Ben’s Cat was an elite horse, he amassed a considerable following and did a lot of good in an age where positive stories aren’t easy to come by.

Ben’s Cat finishes with 32 wins in 63 starts and earnings of more than $2.6 million, and you could forgive anyone who set low expectations for him at the outset of his career. His sire, Parker’s Storm Cat, was just 1-for-4 lifetime and never tried stakes company. His dam, Twofox, was a three-time winner, but one who won just one of her final 11 starts.

Consider what that modest pedigree resulted in. It led to a horse who won 26 stakes races and amassed more outings than American Pharoah, California Chrome, and Zenyatta combined. He won at least one race at historic Pimlico Race Course in seven consecutive years, which is a record that may go untouched (similar to Fourstardave’s eight-year run at Saratoga). He was at his best on turf, but was far from a slouch on dirt, having won three straight renewals of the rich Fabulous Strike Handicap at Penn National.

Was Ben’s Cat a top-echelon horse? No. He never tried Grade 1 company, let alone a Breeders’ Cup race. That said…does it matter?

We live in an age where thoroughbreds “breeze” a furlong at 2-year-old sales, sell for obscene amounts of money, and leave those connections shocked when infirmities show up that often cause early retirements (though not shocked enough to stop seeking and overpaying for prodigious speed at 2-year-old sales the next year). By comparison, Ben’s Cat retired sound at age 11 after a career that made him one of the most beloved horses in the country. You could offer me 100 of those impressive-looking 2-year-olds. I’ll take one Ben’s Cat replica instead.

Much has been made lately about ways the sport of horse racing can grow. What the game needs are horses the average fan can get behind, ones that people will come to the track to see run once a month. In any sport, stars create business and interest, and it’s no different in horse racing. We don’t need impressive 2-year-old maiden winners who run a few times and retire prematurely. We need warhorses, ones who are reliable, hard-knocking, and sound. That’s what Ben’s Cat was for so long. He was a stalwart in an age where stalwarts are hard to come by, and even at age 11, when it was clear he lost a step physically, he had the mind and competitiveness of a stakes-quality horse.

As some of you know, I have a vote for horse racing’s Hall of Fame. It’s safe to assume that based on current criteria, Ben’s Cat won’t get inducted. He likely won’t even make a ballot. The same can be said for Fourstardave, whose Saratoga record may be the most unbreakable mark in all of thoroughbred racing. Ditto for the likes of Rapid Redux, Pepper’s Pride, and Hallowed Dreams, all horses who reeled off extensive winning streaks at small circuits around the country far away from the bright lights of New York, Kentucky, and California.

For this reason, I’ve hashed out an idea to honor the hard-knocking veterans of the sport. These horses may not have had Secretariat’s abilities, Forego’s closing kick, or the pure speed of Dr. Fager, but what they did was equally as valuable to the game we love. They engaged fans, they always showed up, and when their careers were over, everyone who saw them run sincerely appreciated their efforts and contributions.

I propose a Warhorse Wing of the National Museum of Racing and Hall of Fame. Every year, a committee would have an option to induct a horse that fulfilled pre-existing criteria. I’m open to any constructive criticism, but my initial criteria is that a horse must meet at least one of the below requirements for consideration.

1) Run for a minimum of five seasons.
2) Achieve a minimum of 50 career starts.
3) Win 10 or more races consecutively.

I’m aware of plenty of rational viewpoints against this idea. Yes, this would open the doors for horses of lesser ability into the Hall of Fame, and yes, this would add an induction to classes that are already growing in size due to a backlog of worthy candidates. Those are valid criticisms, and if you fall into one of those camps, I won’t argue too strenuously with you (side note: boy, I’d make an awful politician).

Having said that, horses that meet the above criteria have done an immeasurable amount of good for the game. It’s my belief that they deserve the highest possible level of recognition, especially in an era where long, productive careers aren’t necessarily the norm.

I don’t have a snappy, witty closing line to finish things off with, so I’ll end with a story. Last year, the day before the Preakness, I was working at TVG headquarters. Ben’s Cat was a 10-year-old, and signs of his decline were beginning to show. I watched the race with racing cynic/PhotoShop wizard Danny Kovoloff, and we saw 4/5 favorite Rocket Heat spurt clear at the top of the stretch while Ben’s Cat looked pinned in along the rail. With a furlong to go, it looked like the veteran was bound for a minor award; a solid showing, for sure, but a certain step down from some of his prior efforts.

Then, with a sixteenth of a mile to go, Ben’s Cat angled off the rail. He somehow found space between Rocket Heat and longshot Spring to the Sky, and Danny and I (two people whose curmudgeonly behavior far outweighs our relative youth) began screaming at the television.

“COME ON, BEN! COME ON, BEN!”

Ben’s Cat hit the wire clear by a head in what would turn out to be the last winning performance of his career. A TVG executive heard the noise, stepped out of his office, and remarked, “…that was awesome.”

We agreed.

The Hall of Fame Case of Gio Ponti

I have an annual ballot for the National Museum of Racing and Hall of Fame. It’s one of the biggest honors that anyone covering racing can receive, and voting is a responsibility I don’t take lightly.

This year, I voted for all four of the finalists who will be enshrined in Saratoga Springs this summer. That list includes three-time Breeders’ Cup Mile winner Goldikova and jockeys Javier Castellano, Victor Espinoza, and Garrett Gomez.

One finalist who did not make my ballot was Gio Ponti, one of the top turf horses in the U.S. from 2009 through 2011. Simply put, I just didn’t think Gio Ponti was a Hall of Famer. This was in stark contrast to the views of several people I respect, including TVG’s Darin Zoccali, TwinSpires’s Ed DeRosa, fellow Saratogian alum Will Springstead, and Horse Racing Nation’s Brian Zipse, who didn’t vote for Gio Ponti but saw him as a very tough cut from his eventual ballot.

Due to this disagreement, I’ve gotten in several very animated discussions about the topic, and the only way I know how to resolve this is by writing way, way, way too many words about it. As such, here we are, debating the Hall of Fame merits of Gio Ponti through a multiple-step process. As a heads-up, if it turns out that this winds up being a popular piece, I have no problem analyzing the cases of other finalists and other horses, trainers, or jockeys who will be up for election in the next few years, so let me know what you think.

WHY VOTE FOR GIO PONTI?

Gio Ponti’s main strength is his longevity. He won stakes races in five consecutive seasons, competed in four Breeders’ Cup events, and captured seven Grade 1 races. He raced 29 times, and finished first or second on 22 occasions while racking up more than $6.1 million in earnings, much of which came following a pair of second-place finishes in Breeders’ Cup races (the 2009 Classic and the 2010 Mile). Those races were won by Hall of Famers Zenyatta and Goldikova.

WHY VOTE AGAINST GIO PONTI?

He failed to win a single Breeders’ Cup race despite multiple opportunities, and he came along during a time where the American turf division was, to put it mildly, extremely weak. Additionally, while he was voted Champion Grass Horse in 2010, that honor came after a campaign where he won just two races from seven starts, and he only won once in six 2011 starts to boot. What kind of an indictment is it on his competition when the horse deemed America’s best on turf lost 10 of his final 13 races?

Admittedly, there’s no shame in running second to Zenyatta and Goldikova, or even Cape Blanco, who dusted him a few times in 2011 and could have been Horse of the Year had an injury not robbed him of a chance to compete in the Breeders’ Cup. However, looks at his career record also reveal losses to forgettable horses like Mission Approved, Debussy, Winchester, and Karelian. This isn’t a case of a horse like Alydar or Easy Goer, where repeated losses to Hall of Famers were soothed by dominant wins over most of their peers. Gio Ponti had a stellar 2009 season (one that included four straight Grade 1 wins at three different tracks), but voters held their noses when giving him the 2010 award, and his 2011 campaign was nothing to write home about.

HISTORICAL COMPARISONS

In debating Gio Ponti’s merits, I actually had one Gio Ponti supporter say the words, “Stats are for losers.” I could crack wise about how said supporter clearly went to the Donald Trump School of Debate, but instead, I’m going to use Gio Ponti’s resume as a comparison point for other horses, so as to illustrate the validity of his Hall of Fame candidacy. Admittedly, there are times where stats don’t tell the full story of what a horse accomplished, but many times, a blind comparison of accomplishments can shine a brighter light onto a given situation such as this one.

Gio Ponti
Career Record: 29-12-10-1
Earnings: $6,169,800
Graded Stakes Wins (Grade 1 Wins): 10 (Seven)
Breeders’ Cup Wins (Appearances): Zero (Four)

Horse A
Career Record: 31-23-2-0
Earnings: $7,552,920
Graded Stakes Wins (Grade 1 Wins): 19 (11)
Breeders’ Cup Wins (Appearances): Two (Three)

Horse B
Career Record: 25-14-8-0
Earnings: $2,515,289
Graded Stakes Wins (Grade 1 Wins): 10 (Three)
Breeders’ Cup Wins (Appearances): Two (Three)

Horse C
Career Record: 30-14-7-2
Earnings: $2,293,384
Graded Stakes Wins (Grade 1 Wins): 10 (Two)
Breeders’ Cup Wins (Appearances): One (Five)

Horse D
Career Record: 29-13-6-4
Earnings: $2,321,751
Graded Stakes Wins (Grade 1 Wins): Nine (Three)
Breeders’ Cup Wins (Appearances): One (Five)

For purposes of this comparison, I deliberately chose horses that fit Gio Ponti’s career profile. Namely, they raced for sustained periods of time, mainly in graded stakes company, and they appeared in multiple Breeders’ Cup events not named the Breeders’ Cup Classic. Gio Ponti ran second in that race in 2009 when that race was run over a synthetic surface, but comparing him to horses that ran in that race multiple times wouldn’t be fair to him.

Horse A, as most of you probably figured out, is Wise Dan. On credentials, Wise Dan towers over the rest of these horses, including Gio Ponti. Naysayers will counter that he doubles as the main horse of substance that Gio Ponti beat. That matchup came in the 2011 Shadwell Turf Mile at Keeneland. However, Wise Dan wasn’t quite WISE DAN yet. From 2012 through 2014, Wise Dan lost twice in 17 races, a stretch that included back-to-back Breeders’ Cup Mile wins and six Eclipse Awards. He’s a first-ballot Hall of Famer when he comes up for election, and it’s not because of his pre-2012 form.

Horse B is Lure. Lure was arguably the top turf miler of the 1990’s, and while his earnings don’t stack up with those of Wise Dan or Gio Ponti, it must be pointed out that he simply wasn’t running for those kinds of purses during his racing career. Additionally, some of the non-Grade 1 races he won would absolutely be considered Grade 1 races today. For these reasons, Lure had to wait nearly two decades to be enshrined in the Hall of Fame (as much as I love the Hall of Fame and everything it stands for, Lure probably should’ve gone in sooner).

Horse C is Kona Gold. Kona Gold was a finalist for the Hall of Fame this year, and like Gio Ponti, he didn’t get in. Kona Gold is similar to Lure in that he was a victim of the time period in which he ran. Many sprint races that are considered Grade 1 events now weren’t given that billing or the appropriate purse money during Kona Gold’s heyday, and he suffered for that. A scan of his career, though, also reveals some parallels to Gio Ponti. Kona Gold also had one dominant campaign, which came in 2000 when he won five of six starts, including the Breeders’ Cup Sprint. Like Gio Ponti, he stayed on for several seasons after that, running good races but none that quite channeled the form he showed in his best year. I don’t see a camp championing Kona Gold’s candidacy, and certainly not a camp that’s done so as loudly as the one backing Gio Ponti!

Horse D is, I feel, the most damning comparison with regard to Gio Ponti’s Hall of Fame candidacy. This is Obviously, winner of the 2016 Breeders’ Cup Turf Sprint. I want to stress that I am not saying that Obviously is a better horse than Gio Ponti, so please, don’t twist my words around. However, look at the accomplishments side-by-side. Does Gio Ponti’s dwarf Obviously’s? I don’t think it does. Yes, the seven Grade 1 wins are a substantial advantage to Obviously’s three, and the disparity in career earnings is noteworthy. However, Obviously has a Breeders’ Cup win to his credit and was also third behind Wise Dan and Animal Kingdom in the 2012 Breeders’ Cup Mile. That has to count for something.

Gio Ponti is a better horse than Obviously. Is his resume THAT much better? I don’t think so, and I feel like that’s a necessary acid test.

THE VERDICT

Gio Ponti was a fun horse to root for. Any horse that finishes in the top two in 22 of 29 career starts deserves consideration for racing’s highest honor, and he’s certainly a worthy finalist.

However, the quality of horses Gio Ponti ran against must be considered. If he had dominated those horses and fell only to the likes of Zenyatta and Goldikova, I would be much more inclined to vote for him. However, with the exception of one dominant campaign, he wasn’t the caliber of horse that deserves enshrinement amongst the greatest in the history of the sport. He was the best of a very bad group in 2010, and he won just once in 2011. It takes more than one great season to put a horse in the Hall of Fame.

VERDICT: NOT A HALL OF FAMER