Racing Had Momentum After the Kentucky Derby. Now What?

In the aftermath of the Kentucky Derby, I firmly believed that there was a chance for racing to capitalize on mainstream attention.

Everyone was talking about it, and Maximum Security and Country House, forever linked by a disqualification among the most controversial in racing history, could lock up again in the Preakness. Such a rematch would be one of the most anticipated in the game, and the sport would have two weeks to market to an intrigued fan base eager to know more about it.

Swing and a miss.

Maximum Security is being held out of the Preakness. Country House got sick and is now being pointed to the Belmont. As a result, public interest for the Preakness is at a low, and the middle jewel of racing’s Triple Crown has a decidedly “meh” feel to it among prospective fans the sport cannot afford to lose.

Please don’t get that statement twisted. The Preakness could be a fun betting race, with lots of different directions to go in if you’re not crazy about likely favorite Improbable. Preakness week also features an array of high-quality races that provide plenty of attractive wagering options for handicappers like me (and, I surmise, like most of my audience).

However, the general public could not possibly care less about the makeup of the Preakness, nor could they care less about the cornucopia of graded stakes races on Friday and Saturday at Old Hilltop. Saying otherwise is naïve, at best.

Casual fans of the sport have likely heard of four or five horses over the past year and a half: Justify, Accelerate, City of Light, Maximum Security, and Country House. The first three are retired, and the other two are on the bench. Stars make racing much easier to promote, but when horses run less and less (due to radical changes in the ways horses are bred and managed), there has to be a fallback plan in place.

Therein lies a bigger problem nobody is talking about. While the debate following the Kentucky Derby was endless, vicious, and unnecessarily vile at times, debates about how to actually grow the game in the wake of it have drawn crickets on social media. It shows a distinct lack of focus on what should be the biggest focus in racing: Getting new fans, drawing them in, and educating them so they have the most chance of coming back.

What are we, as a sport, doing to ensure that such a plan is in place? This question holds doubly true now that two of the biggest racing days of the year are without any sort of a Triple Crown storyline. We can talk about concerts, and food trucks, and hat contests, and things that look pretty on social media, but how does any of that affect racing for longer than one afternoon? More bluntly, how does any of that affect handle, AT ALL?

Now that Maximum Security and Country House are both out of the Preakness, I challenge you to find a bigger public interest storyline than, “The Stronach Group wants to leave Pimlico behind and move the Preakness to Laurel.” Meanwhile, the Met Mile on Belmont Day could draw McKinzie, Mitole, and Coal Front, which for my money makes it the main event on that program (as opposed to a race for 3-year-olds going a distance they are not at all bred to handle). Tell that to the general public, and the response is, “why should I care?”

What are we, as a sport, doing to answer that question? We did a lot in the 72 hours after the Kentucky Derby to try to convince people that the DQ was either the right call or the wrong call. If we channeled half of that energy into actually marketing the sport the way it should be marketed, I’m convinced we’d see substantial results long-term. Combine that with breeding horses for stamina and soundness instead of pure speed, and we may actually have ways to market both the sport and the best horses in it.

It’s naïve to think the Preakness matters as much as it did to the novice racing fan before Maximum Security and Country House defected from the field. It doesn’t. We can be as positive and optimistic as we want about how it still holds historical significance as the second leg of racing’s Triple Crown, but such statements fall on deaf ears to a public conditioned only to care about the sport on its biggest days. That isn’t me being negative, or pessimistic. That’s a fact, one that racing has brought onto itself as top-notch horses transitioned from running 10 to 12 times per year a generation ago to running four to six times per year while their connections said, “We’re training him up to…”.

The answer to the, “now what?,” question should be, “well, this coming week has a lot of really good horses in action that you could see later this year.” Except it doesn’t. There are five stakes races Saturday at Belmont Park, and they boast a combined total of 31 entries. Only one of those races (the Man o’ War) will have more than six horses going postward.

I’ve worked in marketing at a number of different businesses. The keys to a successful campaign are capitalizing on momentum created from prior steps in the process. Racing had chances to do that this time around, and it didn’t.

I’m worried about how many more chances the industry will have to do that.

Country House, Maximum Security, the Kentucky Derby, and the Question Nobody’s Asking

“What is a foul that merits disqualification?”

Like everyone else, I’ve been struggling to wrap my head around what happened Saturday afternoon at Churchill Downs. It’s something we’ve never seen before: The winner of the Kentucky Derby was disqualified for interference during the running of the race.

As the social media age dictates, reaction to the decision has been mixed and loud, and it’s not expected to quiet down anytime soon. Many people I like and respect voiced support for the unanimous decision that disqualified Maximum Security and elevated Country House to the top spot. Many people I like and respect also thought it was a terrible, awful, no-good, very-bad call that disgraced the biggest race of the year.

My opinion is that the DQ was warranted. We can go on and on about this, but while Maximum Security didn’t bother Country House, his drifting nearly caused War of Will to clip heels, and Long Range Toddy was sandwiched as a result. Maybe neither horse was winning, and maybe Country House was never getting by, but I don’t think any of that matters.

However, I’m writing this not to take one side or the other, but to put forth an alternate hypothesis. With all due respect to the writers, handicappers, and pundits that have voiced their opinions…I don’t think it matters what any of us think of the decision.

Why? Because there’s a bigger elephant in the room nobody wants to address that was front and center Saturday afternoon.

“What is a foul that merits disqualification?”

Ask that question to officials in Kentucky, New York, Florida, and California, and you’re going to get four different answers. By the letter of the rules in each state, infractions that merit disqualification in one state don’t necessarily merit disqualification in another. This is even before the human element of the story comes into play (as a former TVG colleague states often, horse racing is the only sport where officials consult the athletes on whether or not to call a penalty).

If you bend or break the rules in any other sport, you know the penalty. If you’re a basketball player and you steamroll a defender whose feet are set, you lose the ball. If you’re a catcher on a baseball team and you inch up to where the batter has no chance to hit the ball, the batter gets first base. If you’re lined up on the football field and move before the ball is snapped, your team loses five yards.

“What is a foul that merits disqualification?”

Four states.

Four different answers.

One big problem.

A national racing commission is not the answer to horse racing’s abundance of issues. There are logical questions about who would run such a commission, and what groups would or would not be represented within it (any idea being floated around about this seems to shut out bettors; consciously done or not, that’s a big problem).

However, there is no reason why circuits cannot come together and implement one consistent code with regard to how races are ridden by jockeys and policed by stewards. At a time when racing is under a microscope for a variety of reasons, enacting such a code in the name of consistency, transparency, and fair play could only serve to benefit racing in any number of ways.

Gamblers would know what to expect in every single situation involving an inquiry or objection. Jockeys would know what not to do on the track, and how they would be punished for breaking the rules. The general public would see an effort to protect horses and riders, at a time when many concerned with safety are holding their collective breath every time fields go postward.

If circuits don’t trust one another (and let’s be honest, if they did, race scheduling would never be an issue), let the NTRA handle it. Put such a code into the guidelines of the safety accreditation process that every establishment goes through each year. If you’re a track, and you want that accreditation, you’re going to play by these rules. If you don’t want those rules in place, that’s fine, but members of the public are going to know where you stand and draw their own conclusions.

My issue isn’t whether or not Maximum Security deserved to come down. My issue is that there was no clear, concise answer about how to attack this situation. By the count of Horse Racing Nation editor Jonathan Lintner, it took 10 times longer to decide the outcome of the inquiry than it did to run the race. If there’s a code in place that everyone has to follow, from jockeys to stewards, there’s no subjectivity to the process, we all know what’s going to happen, and everything becomes much easier.

Following the race, one steward at Churchill Downs read a statement. She did not answer questions from the media or the public, and I do not have an issue with that. Stewards should not be spokespeople, just as referees should not speak to media covering their respective sports. Leave that stuff to the suckers in marketing and public relations (hi, Ed DeRosa!).

Having said that, in the scrum of unanswered questions involving such entities as Kentucky taxpayers, to the best of my knowledge, nobody asked the one question I wanted answered.

“What is a foul that merits disqualification?”

Your guess is as good as mine.

Isn’t that a problem?

Anyone Hiring? Plus: Analysis, Selections, and Pick Four Tickets (3/9/19)

First, the unpleasant tidbit that you may have already heard: I’m out of a job.

Back in November, I was hired by MOAC, a blockchain company based in Silicon Valley. This came two months after my job at The Daily Racing Form was transitioned from full-time to part-time. Unfortunately, earlier this week, I was informed that the company had dissolved its marketing team. As such, for the second time in six months, I’m actively searching for work.

Please let me stress that this isn’t a funeral or a pity party. Due in large part to the best support system anyone could ever hope to have, I’m confident I’ll land on my feet. However, if you happen to be out there looking for a horse racing, content creation, social/digital media, and/or marketing professional, I’d love to chat with you. You can reach out either via Twitter or this site’s “contact” feature.

Regardless of external circumstances, writers will always write, and semi-professional horseplayers will always give opinions about playing horses in a semi-professional manner. That’s why I’m here. We’ve got three Kentucky Derby preps coming up this weekend, and I’ll also be dissecting the associated Pick Four sequences.

There’s a lot to go through, so let’s get to it!

AQUEDUCT

Kentucky Derby Prep: Gotham S. (G3), Race 10
Late Pick Four: Races 8-11

We’ll start off at The Big A, which features, for my money, the strongest renewal of the Gotham Stakes in many years. It anchors a terrific all-stakes Pick Four, and it features one of the most talked-about 3-year-olds in the country.

That’s #6 INSTAGRAND, who ships cross-country for Hall of Famer Jerry Hollendorfer. How good was he as a 2-year-old? Based on Beyer Speed Figures, he likely doesn’t have to improve at all to beat this solid group, and any sort of improvement would make the even-money morning line look like a real overlay. He’s worked well of late, and while the added distance is always a question mark, his breeding suggests a one-turn mile will not be a problem.

As a handicapper, I want to find a reason to go against him, but I can’t. Simply put, I think he’s much more talented than the group lining up against him. There’s a lot of speed signed on, to be sure, but I don’t think he needs the lead in order to win. I think he’ll likely sit off the speed and be in prime position going into the turn. With that sort of trip, I don’t think he loses.

If you insist on trying to beat the chalk, the most intriguing alternative strikes me as #5 HAIKAL, who may be the race’s true lone closer. He hasn’t run particularly fast, but based on the pace scenario, he’ll likely have much more left in the tank late than most of the opposition. The faster they go early, the better he’ll like it, and because of that, the play may be a Dave Weaver-style “ice cold exacta” using Instagrand on top of this 6-1 shot.

$0.50 Pick Four: Race #8

R8: ALL
R9: 2,7,8
R10: 6
R11: 3,7,12

63 Bets, $31.50

While Instagrand figures to be very tough to beat, I do think there’s value in the late Pick Four. I’ll try to get a price or two home along with my Gotham single to make this pay a bit.

We’ll be guaranteed to get to the second leg, as I’m buying the Grade 3 Tom Fool. I thought this was a confounding race with a foggy pace scenario and a vulnerable favorite. #3 SKYLER’S SCRAMJET ran well twice here earlier in the meet, but hasn’t won since this race last year and may not be the same horse. With a fairly short field of seven, buying this race doesn’t result in an overpriced ticket.

The ninth is the Stymie Stakes for older horses, and it’s drawn a fun field for the level. #2 SUNNY RIDGE can certainly win, as can the returning #8 VINO ROSSO, but I’m pretty intrigued by a price. That’s #7 SHIVERMETIMBERS, who has run in some tough races out west. A scan of his running lines reveals an abundance of graded stakes-caliber horses, and all three of his wins have come at this one-mile distance. I doubt we’ll get his morning line price of 12-1, but if he wins, it’s likely that a lot of Pick Four tickets get knocked out.

We’ll hope to be alive to three horses in the finale, the Busher Stakes for 3-year-old fillies. I’m taking a bit of a shot here, as I don’t like favorite #10 PLEASE FLATTER ME or second choice #11 ALWAYS SHOPPING. The former gets a huge class and distance test and likely won’t be alone in wanting the lead, while the latter is likely better going two turns and wants much further than this one-mile distance. Of the two Todd Pletcher trainees, I prefer #12 ORRA MOOR, who has been impressive in back-to-back wins at Gulfstream Park. I’ll also use #3 OXY LADY, who won at this route back in November, and #7 FILLY JOEL, who cuts back to one turn after showing two turns may be a bit further than she wants to go.

TAMPA BAY DOWNS

Kentucky Derby Prep: Tampa Bay Derby (G2), Race 11
Late Pick Four: Races 9-12

The Tampa Bay Derby serves as the main event on a terrific card. The race drew a field of 11, and I think it’s a great betting race because I don’t like the morning line favorite.

I acknowledge that #7 WIN WIN WIN was very impressive in winning the Pasco Stakes. However, that race fell apart, and I don’t think he beat much. He’s never been two turns, and at his likely short price, I’m going to try to beat him.

#4 DREAM MAKER, like most offspring of Tapit, likely needed some time to grow up. Judging by his smashing win last month at Fair Grounds, he’s come a long way from two duds in stakes company last year. If he builds off of that last-out effort, I think he’s the one to beat, and we may get a bit of a price given the large field signed on.

The early pace is going to be interesting. If #5 WELL DEFINED gets an easy lead, he’ll likely be tough to catch. His win in the Grade 3 Sam F. Davis here was very good, and a repeat effort puts him right there. My slight hesitation here is due to the presence of #11 ZENDEN, who may be sent hard from the gate and could present some pace pressure. However, I need to have Well Defined on my tickets, just in case Zenden either doesn’t clear from his outside post or is rated in his first two-turn effort.

$0.50 Pick Four: Race #9

R9: 2,7
R10: 1,3,4,5,10
R11: 4,5
R12: 5,10

40 Bets, $20

Unfortunately, I don’t think there’s much room for huge prices in this sequence, so I made an effort to keep the cost of my ticket down. Still, the field sizes involve hint that we could get a surprising return on investment if we cash.

The ninth is the Grade 2 Hillsborough for older distaffers on turf. I’m using the two likely favorites in #2 HAWKSMOOR and #7 RYMSKA. I do prefer the latter, as Hawksmoor may want a touch shorter than this nine-furlong distance, but these two certainly seem to be the class of this group.

The best betting race of the sequence is probably the second leg. It’s the Grade 3 Florida Oaks for 3-year-old fillies, and I had to spread. #5 CONCRETE ROSE and #10 STELLAR AGENT both have talent, but they’re also making their 2019 debuts. I’m most intrigued by #3 WINTER SUNSET, who’s bred to be a really nice filly and is 2-for-2 coming into her graded stakes debut.

After the Tampa Bay Derby, the finale is a $25,000 claimer on the grass. Likely favorite #5 TRUMPI’s record looks significantly better if you toss the races at Gulfstream Park, which boasts a surface that simply may not agree with him. He adds blinkers in his first start for Dale Bennett, and he seems like the horse to beat. I’ll also use #10 SIMMARDSTRIKE, who drops in for a tag and may relish the cutback from nine furlongs to a mile. The outside post is a problem, but he could be rolling late at a fair price.

TURFWAY PARK

Kentucky Derby Prep: Jeff Ruby Steaks (G3), Race 11
Late Pick Four: Races 9-12

It’s never easy to predict which horses will like a synthetic track, which makes the Jeff Ruby an incredibly tricky affair to handicap. The likely favorite is #10 SOMELIKEITHOTBROWN, who first came onto the scene winning a race at the wrong distance at Saratoga (never forget) and has since won the local prep for this race, the Battaglia.

He’s certainly good enough to win, and I need him on my tickets. However, there’s another I need to use, and it’s one of those “first-time synthetic” horses. That’s #3 FIVE STAR GENERAL, who figures to be the main speed in this race. He didn’t break well in the Sam F. Davis, but won two off-the-turf races in a row before that, including a stakes race at Aqueduct. They’ve clearly wanted to get on turf for a while, and that’s often a sign that a horse will like a synthetic track. Somelikeithotbrown may be better, but I need to use Five Star General in case he gets brave on the front end.

$0.50 Pick Four: Race #9

R9: 1,8
R10: 3,5,6,11
R11: 3,10
R12: 1,6,7,10

64 Bets, $32

The Jeff Ruby is one of three stakes races in this sequence, which seems to present some value given the big fields and lack of heavy favorites (save for Somelikeithotbrown). Hopefully, my $32 ticket provides enough coverage.

We’ll start off with the Kentucky Cup Classic for older horses, and I’m using the bookends. #1 NUN THE LESS makes lots of sense given his two-back win over similar foes, and he’ll likely go favored, but my top selection is actually #8 LANIER, who seems like the race’s lone speed. He wants to go longer than he ran last time out, and I think he could get very comfortable on the front end. He was just a length behind Nun the Less two back, and that was with a respectable pace. If they go slower (and I think they will), this one could wire them at a fair price.

The second leg is the Bourbonette Oaks, and like the Jeff Ruby, it’s attracted several out-of-town shippers. My top pick is #5 INTO TROUBLE, whose lone start on a synthetic surface was a last-to-first score at Arlington in September. However, I do think there’s room for a price. #3 BIRDIE was very impressive last time out at this route, while #6 RED ROUNDER’s last race at Fair Grounds seems like a throw-out. Finally, #11 DIVA DAY is bred up and down for this trip and could improve off of a debut win at a big price for a top local barn.

We’ll hope to be alive to four horses to finish this off. #7 BYE BYE BULLY’S may be favored, but I don’t think she’ll be her 8/5 price given the large field. 5/2 or so seems much more likely, and while she could easily win, I can’t simply rely on her alone in the payoff leg. #1 GOLDEN LOCH had a wide trip when second at this route last time out, and second-time starters #6 LYNDA D and #10 SAILOR’S CAP could easily step forward here at big prices.

The Sam F. Davis, a Rainbow Six Mandatory Payout, Three Pick Fours, and an Interlude: 2/9/19

Before we do a deep dive into the Sam F. Davis, the mandatory Rainbow Six payout at Gulfstream Park, and three other multi-race sequences at tracks from Florida to California, I’m going to attempt to wade into the deep water and go through some stuff that’s been lingering in my subconscious for a week. If you want to scroll down past the next several paragraphs and resume reading at the section marked “TAMPA BAY DOWNS,“ feel free to do so. If you do, though, know that you’re missing the most bizarre “thank you” I’ve ever written.

As those who know me well can attest, I’m cursed, and I’m only half-joking. My mind rarely stops, and sometimes, what it conjures up are some of the weirdest, most whacked-out things known to mankind. There are times where this has worked (every journalism award I’ve ever won), times where it hasn’t (one major track pushing for me to be fired; you’re all going to want to hear that story when I can tell it), and times where the reactions I get generally puzzle everyone (me going into “pro wrestler cutting a promo” mode, as I’m prone to do).

Last Friday was one of those times. I’d just come back from dinner at Vinnie’s, the local dive bar in my neighborhood that prides itself on cheap burgers, bright TV’s, and a juke box with long songs designed to tick people off when you buy them with the “advanced priority” option (my go-to is the 12-minute version of “Papa Was a Rolling Stone”). Before cranking out a 2,700-word column, I took to Twitter.

 

24 hours later, I looked, and that tweet had more likes than anything else I’ve ever tweeted. Please understand that this, for lack of a better phrase, scared the hell out of me.

I beat everyone at Saratoga in 2017, less than six months after being told by someone that I had no use to him/her as any sort of a handicapper. I’ve won awards for the work that I’ve done with several different outlets. I’ve been different combinations of fortunate, proud, and successful at a lot of different things…and me calling myself an old fart who needs help was what got the most attention.

Being scared was the short-term reaction. Some in horse racing genuinely believe that I’m a joke who isn’t to be taken seriously, and I’m sure that group includes some pretty high-profile people. However, what I ultimately realized, in the aftermath of that tweet, is that I’ve got the support of way more people than I ever thought I did.

I can’t really go into too much depth about why that means as much as it does right now (it’s a long story for another time and place). Suffice it to say, though, that when I digested everything, I was pretty moved. I’m not in the horse racing business full-time anymore, so nobody’s paying me to write this stuff. This is a labor of love for me, and between the response to that tweet and the stats I’ve seen on my website, I’ve realized that I’m a very blessed person. I have some value to people who read my stuff, and any writer will tell you that that’s an incredible thing.

To everyone who read this (and those that scrolled down to the next section and are only catching this paragraph by accident), thank you. Now, let’s get to work!

TAMPA BAY DOWNS

Derby Prep: Sam F. Davis Stakes (Grade 3)
Late Pick Four: Races 9-12

The Sam F. Davis Stakes headlines the Saturday card at Tampa Bay Downs, and Kentucky Derby points are on the line. The race drew a field of 10, and it’s headlined by #3 KNICKS GO, who ran second in last year’s Breeders’ Cup Juvenile behind Game Winner.

Knicks Go can certainly win this race. His clunker in the Grade 2 Kentucky Jockey Club is excusable given the sloppy track he ran on, and he’s working well ahead of his 3-year-old debut. Having said that, there’s a lot of speed in this race, and while Knicks Go doesn’t need the lead to run well, I think he’ll be up close to a very fast pace.

I’m looking elsewhere for my top pick, and I landed on #8 SO ALIVE, a Todd Pletcher trainee that will likely go off much shorter than his 5-1 morning line price. He boasts a win over the Tampa Bay Downs surface, and he’s shown a strong closing kick. His final pre-race work was a bullet earlier this week, and it’s never a bad thing to have Javier Castellano in town to ride.

In addition to those two, I’ll also use a price on some of my wider tickets. #10 STILL DREAMING is a half-brother to Kentucky Derby winner Nyquist, and he stretched out with authority last time out at Laurel Park. The post position is definitely an issue, and he almost certainly has to step up, but logical improvement and some racing luck puts him right there for a piece of it.

$0.50 Pick Four: Race #9

R9: 2,4,7,8,9
R10: 2,4
R11: 3,8
R12: 1,4,6

60 Bets, $30

The late Pick Four features three stakes races, and it starts with the Suncoast for 3-year-old fillies. I found this race positively confounding, and I had to spread in order to be at all comfortable with getting out of the first leg. Had Rymska’s connections not opted for the Grade 3 Suwanee River at Gulfstream instead of the Endeavour, I’d have hit the “ALL” button, but I had to chop a few horses off the ticket to save money.

Rymska scratching actually opens this sequence up a bit for me, because I don’t like the new favorite. #6 HAWKSMOOR certainly has speed and back class, but she hasn’t run since October, hasn’t won since 2017, and figures to see some opposition up front. My top pick is #2 GET EXPLICIT, who got pretty good near the end of last year, and I’ll also throw in #4 MONTE CRISTA. That runner is a price, but something clearly went wrong two back and her 2019 debut came off a three-month layoff. She showed serious ability last summer, and anything close to the 12-1 morning line would hit me as a considerable overlay.

I’ll go two-deep in the Sam F. Davis (though I’ll likely save with Still Dreaming in doubles), and I’ll go three-deep in the payoff leg. This is a claiming race for older horses going two turns on the turf. I’ll use the two likely favorites, #1 ADIOS NARDO and #6 HUNTSTOWN, as well as #4 AT THE READY, who has run very well over this track, would benefit from a pace meltdown, and could give us some value at anywhere close to his 8-1 morning line price.

GULFSTREAM PARK

$0.20 Pick Six: Race #7

R7: 2,4,5,9,12 (15)
R8: 2
R9: 2,3,4,7,9
R10: 3,5
R11: 4,5,6,8,9
R12: 5

250 Bets, $50

The handicapping puzzle of the day at Gulfstream is the Rainbow Six, which boasts a mandatory payout. Naturally, the folks in Hallandale Beach have put together some incredibly difficult events to decipher, and if you hit, I think you’ll get paid handsomely.

Right off the bat, we have an overflow field in a maiden claiming event. As usual in a race like this, there isn’t much in the way of proven form signed on, so I felt the need to go five-deep. One note: If one of my horses scratches, that opens the door for #15 CROWN ROMANCE to draw in. If that’s the case, I need to have him on the ticket, hence the parentheses above.

The eighth, however, seems much more clear-cut. #2 REAGAN’S ODYSSEY has burned some money of late, but was a good second last time out at this level and goes to the barn of Audrey Maragh, which has been on a hot streak of late with horses first off the claim. I think she’s considerably best in here, and we need to single somewhere given my self-imposed budget, so that’s what we’ll do.

The ninth is a maiden special weight event for 3-year-old fillies, and it starts the late Pick Four (note: if you want to play my last four legs, it would be a $25 Pick Four ticket). This is another spread race for me, as several in here are stretching out in distance. My top selection, though, is a juicy 6-1 on the morning line in her turf debut. That’s #2 EBULLIENT, who’s bred up and down for the lawn and gets Lasix for trainer Michael Matz.

The tenth is a loaded allowance race headlined by a pair of 3-year-olds that could be on their ways to bigger things. The morning line favorite is #3 GLOBAL CAMPAIGN, who was a very impressive debut winner for Stanley Hough. The close second choice is #5 STANDARD DEVIATION, who misfired in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile after running a sneaky-good third in the Grade 1 Breeders’ Futurity at Keeneland. Some may single one or the other, but I’m playing it safe and going two-deep.

The eleventh is the final spread race on my ticket. It’s the El Prado Stakes, and there may be a lot of tickets out there that buy this race. That’s how difficult it is, and for an ungraded stakes race, it drew a very strong field. #5 MR CUB was a close second behind Pegasus World Cup Turf winner Bricks and Mortar last time out, and I’d be stunned if he went off at his 9/2 price. The big price I need to use, though, is #4 SIDING SPRING, whose best races have come over this turf course. He’s simply a different animal in Hallandale Beach, and even though he’s lacking a bit in figures, I need to have him on the ticket.

I hate singling in the last leg of a ticket like this. However, there’s a filly in the finale that I like a fair bit, and she’ll likely be a bit of a price. #5 SUNNY DALE ran evenly in her career debut going two turns last month, and I think she’ll take a big step forward at second asking. John Servis’s horses tend to improve with experience, and she’s bred to be a very good turf horse. It’s tough to debut at two turns, so I’ll take a shot against #1 CAFÉ AMERICANO (the likely favorite). If that one beats me, so be it.

OAKLAWN PARK

$0.50 Pick Four: Race #6

R6: 1,2,11
R7: 1,5,8
R8: 9
R9: 4,5,7,9,10,11

54 Bets, $27

For the second Saturday in a row, Oaklawn’s late Pick Four is a doozy. I’m building it around one horse I really like, and I’m hoping we get a price or two home around that one to make this pay a bit.

The sixth is a $20,000 claiming event. The entry trained by Robertino Diodoro figures to be tough, but I like #11 DOCTOR LEE best. He was fourth against a much better field last time out, and he won three straight races not long ago. 6-1 seems like a square price, and anything close to that would certainly entice a win bet.

I’m also going three-deep in the Saturday feature, the King Cotton Stakes for older sprinters. I can’t get too cute in here, as I’m using the three likely favorites. If #1 WILBO is ready to go off of the long layoff, I think he’s the horse to beat. He won this race last year and has done some of his best running in Hot Springs. He boasts a steady work tab ahead of his return, and I think trainer Chris Hartman (who’s 0 for 13 at the meet as of this writing) could get off the duck in a big, big way.

My single comes in the eighth, an allowance event for older fillies and mares. That single is #9 SPRINGDETTI, who has been working lights-out for trainer Norman McKnight. McKnight is hitting at a 27% clip this meet, and if this mare runs to her works, I think she’ll be very tough.

I’m happy I could single with some degree of confidence in the eighth, because the Saturday finale is a mess. It’s a maiden claimer with a full field, and it includes several runners dropping in class. #10 AUGIE is the likely favorite, and if he’s ready, he probably wins, but he hasn’t run in almost 11 months. If he’s not ready, I have no confidence in much of this group, so I’ll include five others to buy some security.

SANTA ANITA

$0.50 Pick Four: Race #11

R8: 6
R9: 1,3,4,6
R10: 3,5,8,9
R11: 3,5,7,10,11

80 Bets, $40

We’ll finish things off with Santa Anita, and I’ll start with a bit of a rant. The opening leg of the sequence is an optional claiming race for 3-year-olds going six and a half furlongs. Sunday’s feature is the Grade 2 San Vicente for 3-year-old sprinters going seven furlongs. Why was Saturday’s race even carded, especially with the San Vicente struggling for entries? My head hurts.

Several runners in this field likely would’ve taken some play in the latter race, and I’ve singled one of them. #6 MUCH BETTER was part of a contested pace in the Grade 3 Sham, which was won by the fast-closing Gunmetal Gray. That one ran OK when second in the Robert B. Lewis last weekend, and I think Much Better will run…well, much better, on the cutback in distance for Bob Baffert and Mike Smith.

The ninth race is the Grade 2 San Marcos, and while the West Coast turf marathon contingent isn’t any great shakes, I thought this was a fascinating betting race. #3 CHICAGO STYLE and #4 EPICAL will take money, but the former does his best running at Del Mar, and the latter takes a big step up in class and may have to work for the early lead. My top pick is actually #1 UNAPOLOGETIC, who runs for red-hot trainer Bill Spawr, and I’ll also use European invader #6 SEJO, who gets Lasix for the first time after hinting at some potential last year in France.

The tenth is a claiming race for older horses, and your guess is as good as mine with regard to who will be favored. #9 HONEYMOONZ OVER gets that distinction on the morning line, and I’m using him on the drop in class, but the barn is ice-cold this meet, so it’s not like he’s a cinch. Of the bigger prices, #3 CRAZY UNCLE RICK caught my eye. He takes a massive drop out of the allowance ranks to run here, and the last time he ran for a tag on dirt, he jogged. This may wake him up, and if he wins, there’s a chance plenty of tickets get knocked out.

We finish with a maiden race for fillies going down the hill. Naturally, there isn’t much proven hill form signed on (what fun would THAT be?), so I’m spreading and hoping to catch a price. The possible bomb I used here is #10 SPANISH CHANNEL, whose debut was far from bad for an outfit whose firsters tend to need their initial outings. Kent Desormeaux hopping aboard is noteworthy, as is the odds disparity with other runners from that race. #11 SETTLE IT beat Spanish Channel by just a half-length that day, yet the latter is three times the price. I’m hoping Spanish Channel gets ignored, because I think she deserves just as much attention as anyone else in this spot.

Kentucky Derby Preps and Pick Fours: 2/2/19 (Aqueduct, Gulfstream, Santa Anita, and Oaklawn)

For my money, the road to the 2019 Kentucky Derby truly kicks off Saturday, with three prep races scattered across the country. Aqueduct hosts the Grade 3 Withers, Gulfstream Park has the Grade 2 Holy Bull, and Santa Anita boasts the Grade 3 Robert Lewis.

I’ll be profiling each of these prep races in-depth, and I’ll also be taking looks at each track’s late Pick Four sequence. The Derby preps are fun races, the Pick Fours are fun sequences, and I think you can find ways to spend your Saturday cashing some good-sized tickets. In addition, following a Friday night request from the one and only Vic Stauffer (and several other Twitter followers), I’ll also have a ticket for the late Pick Four at Oaklawn Park.

Enough talk; on with the show!

AQUEDUCT
Kentucky Derby Prep: Withers (Grade 3), Race 9
Late Pick Four: Races 7-10

The Withers drew a field of seven, and on the surface, it doesn’t seem like an A-list prep race. Having said that, that doesn’t mean it’s a bad betting race. In fact, I think this may be the best betting race of the preps because of the likely race shape.

Of the seven runners here, five have shown that they want to be on or near the lead on dirt, and one comes in with more credentials on a synthetic track than on dirt. The lone outlier is #6 OUR BRAINTRUST, who stretches out to two turns for the first time and has shown an ability to rate. He was a good second in the Jerome last time out behind the talented Mind Control, who won last year’s Grade 1 Hopeful. That day’s third-place finisher was well-beaten, and since that race, he’s been transferred to the barn of Mark Casse, who is hitting at an excellent rate first off the trainer switch. Our Braintrust is 6-1 on the morning line, and I hope we get that price.

The morning line favorite is #1 TAX, who outran his odds when third in the Grade 2 Remsen. I’m not quite sure why he was 17-1 that day given his pedigree (which screams that he wants to go long), but he ran well when finishing behind Maximus Mischief and Network Effect. The possibility of a bounce is there, and he may be close to a fairly strong early pace, but a repeat performance at the same route would make him pretty tough to beat.

$0.50 Pick Four: Race #7

R7: 2,4
R8: 1,2,5,7,9,10
R9: 1,6
R10: 4,7

48 Bets, $24

Admittedly, I don’t play Aqueduct a lot. The fields are usually short, and the surface is sometimes on the quirky side. However, I love this Pick Four sequence. There are several big prices on my ticket, and if you can solve the puzzle, I think you’ll be in line for a nice score.

The seventh is a $10,000 claiming event for older horses. #2 T LOVES A FIGHT drops back down in class, to a similar level he won at two starts ago. His best race is certainly good enough to win, but given how bad his misfires are, I can’t single him with confidence. I also need to use likely second choice #4 PROFESSOR SNAPE, who led every step of the way last time out after being claimed back by Gary Gullo. He loves Aqueduct, and Gullo seems to get the best out of him.

The eighth is a confounding betting race, and I felt the need to spread. It’s an optional claiming event, and I think several big prices could potentially win it. #5 HOKULEA has run well at this route this meet, #7 FLEET IRISH drops in class, and #10 NEW YORK HERO was too far back last time out after winning two in a row late last year. I’ve used some shorter-priced horses, sure, but if there’s a race where a big price comes in in this sequence, I think it’s this one.

The Withers is the third leg, and the finale is a $16,000 claimer that features many horses light on recent form. #2 HOT MESA was an impressive winner last time out, but he’s shown nothing that says he can repeat that performance in his first try against winners. Instead, I’ll use #4 I LOVE JAXSON, who likely gets a fast track after two duds on off going, and #7 QUEST FOR FIRE, who drops to what’s likely the appropriate level and figures to be the main speed while adding blinkers for Ray Handal.

GULFSTREAM PARK
Kentucky Derby Prep: Holy Bull (Grade 2), Race 11
Late Pick Four: Races 9-12

The central question in the Holy Bull is this: How good do you think #8 MAXIMUS MISCHIEF is? If you buy the hype, he’s possibly a multi-race exotics single. If you don’t, the race becomes a fascinating kaleidoscope of up-and-coming horses traversing Gulfstream’s 1 1/16-mile route (which features a short stretch that often helps frontrunners).

I don’t hate Maximus Mischief, but this seems like the right spot to go against a heavy favorite. His Remsen win was solid, and it resulted in the latest high Beyer Speed Figure for the son of Into Mischief, but they went pretty slow early on. He’ll certainly need to go faster against this group, which features at least five other horses that figure to be sent out of the gate. A sub-:23 opening quarter isn’t out of the question. Can he go that fast early and have something left late in his first start over this track? Maybe he can, but I don’t think that’s a scenario where you want to be all-in on a short price.

I wasn’t huge on #6 MIHOS’s win in the Mucho Macho Man last month. I thought he sat a dream trip in a race where the pace collapsed. Having said that, such a scenario could easily come about once again here, and if the track isn’t overly speed-favoring, I think he’s got a big shot to mow them all down once again. He’s improved with every start to this point for a very talented horseman in Jimmy Jerkens, and it never hurts to have the services of Hall of Fame jockey John Velazquez.

I also need to use #2 FEDERAL CASE. Like Mihos, I wasn’t blown away by his last-out win going a mile. He stalked a slow pace in a short field and prevailed by a neck when heavily favored in his first start for Todd Pletcher. However, he’s trained lights-out since that race, one he may have needed off a bit of a freshening. He doesn’t necessarily need the lead, and his sustained running style could be a fit in a race with tons of speed up front.

If you want to throw Maximus Mischief into multi-race exotics, I can’t disparage that too much. If I was making top-three picks (as I do for The Pink Sheet every summer), he’d be third, and I can see scenarios where he wins. Perhaps he’s a legitimate horse that can overcome the likely pace scenario and continue on the road to Louisville. However, I’ll take a small swing against him on most of my tickets, including this one…

$0.50 Pick Four: Race #9

R9: 4
R10: 4,5,8,9,11
R11: 2,6
R12: 1,3,5,7,8

50 Bets, $25

The late Pick Four features three graded stakes races and a mess of a finale with many first-time starters. I’m using a popular single in the first leg, and I’m hoping to get a price or two home along the way on a reasonably-sized ticket.

My best bet of the day comes in the ninth, the Grade 3 Forward Gal for 3-year-old fillies. I thought #4 FEEDBACK was the best 2-year-old filly I saw on dirt all meet last summer at Saratoga. She’s been on the sidelines since a dominant debut win in August, but she’s been working well for Chad Brown and comes up against a field that, I think, came up extremely light for the level. She may not need to move forward at all off of that performance to beat these, so I’ll single and move on.

The second leg is the Grade 3 Swale, which drew a field of 11 3-year-old males going seven furlongs. There’s a ton of early speed signed on here, and as a result, my top pick is #9 ZENDEN, one of the few horses in here that doesn’t need to be on or near the lead in order to run well. This trainer-jockey combination has been lights-out at the meet, and the horse has done nothing wrong to this point. It’s a good field, so I felt the need to spread, but if the race collapses for this 8-1 shot, it’ll significantly raise the potential for a nice score.

After going two-deep in the Holy Bull without using Maximus Mischief, we’ll look to finish off the sequence by spreading in the finale. Only two of the 11 entrants have experience, so I can’t zero in with any confidence. #1 HONEST MISCHIEF will likely be favored given the tremendous pedigree (by Into Mischief, out of Honest Lady), but the rail draw isn’t ideal for a first-time starter, and other debuting runners in here are working well, too. I also needed to use 30-1 bomb #3 SKY SOLO, who at least showed significant early speed in his debut at Laurel Park. I needed to spend the extra $5 to put him on the ticket on the off-chance he moves forward off of that debut (which isn’t out of the question, judging by a solid work January 30th).

SANTA ANITA
Kentucky Derby Prep: Robert B. Lewis (Grade 3), Race 6
Late Pick Four: Races 7-10

Heads up: Rain is in the forecast for Saturday in Arcadia, so plan for an off track. Also, because the Lewis drew just a six-horse field, they kept it out of the late Pick Four (although it’s in the Rainbow Six, which boasts a mandatory payout).

I can’t get too creative in the Lewis. #5 MUCHO GUSTO seems like the lone serious speed in the race, and I think he’ll be all alone going into the first turn. If he’s allowed to dictate terms like that, it could take a career-best performance from one of the other runners to top him. That doesn’t mean he can’t lose, but I do think it’s unlikely.

I respect #6 NOLO CONTESTO, who graduated last time out after the rider lost an iron in his December debut. He’s been training very well and has the pedigree to move forward as he gets older. He’s my second selection, as I’m going against #4 GUNMETAL GRAY. Yes, that one’s rally in the Grade 3 Sham was visually impressive, but they crawled home that day, and that race’s heavy favorite (Coliseum) failed to fire. I think Gunmetal Gray has serious talent, and that he may be a serious factor in other prep races down the line. However, this one doesn’t seem to set up for him, and I can’t use him on top.

$0.50 Pick Four: Race #7

R7: 3,5,6,8
R8: 5,9
R9: 7
R10: 1,5,10

24 Bets, $12

This didn’t strike me as the most intriguing multi-race sequence of the day. I feel there’s a free square in the ninth, and that the finale has three likely winners most tickets will include. Having said that, it seems like a spot where one can play a $12-$16 ticket and hope for a return in the $80-$100 range. Considering the likely odds of said free square, that’s not a bad value play.

The seventh is a maiden claimer, and the morning line screams, “WE HAVE NO IDEA WHO’LL BE FAVORED.” In this case, my sentiments mirror those of Jon White. I’m four-deep without using the top two choices on that line, and I’ll give #5 TOBY TIME another shot on top. I liked him a bit in his debut against maiden special weight foes, and he ran like he needed the race when chasing a sharp runaway winner. Chuck Treece’s first-time starters often need their unveiling, and these are shallower waters.

The eighth is a maiden event for 3-year-olds. #5 MY MANDATE comes back to dirt after just missing going down the hill, and he seems like the main speed in the race. He’s probably the most likely winner, but I needed to use #9 YOUNG PHILLIP as well. He boasts a steady string of five-furlong workouts for Phil D’Amato, and his pedigree says he’ll love a wet track. The outside draw is a plus, and Heriberto Figueroa has been riding very well this meet. 10-1 seems like way too big a price on that one.

The ninth is the Grade 2 San Pasqual, and I can’t get past #7 MCKINZIE. After the retirements of City of Light and Accelerate (ugh), I think he’s the top older dirt horse in the country going a route of ground. His Malibu win was exceptional, and while I respect the solid, consistent #8 BATTLE OF MIDWAY, that one may have to run his best race since the 2017 Breeders’ Cup Dirt Mile to top the runner to his inside.

We finish things off with a claiming race for older sprinters. I’m using the three morning line favorites, and my top choice is #1 CANDYMAN GARRET. It’s safe to assume something went wrong on September 1st at Del Mar, because we haven’t seen him since then. He’s got several strong works on the tab for Jeff Mullins, and if you toss that clunker, his form looks much, much stronger. If he’s ready to go, I think it’s likely he wires the field.

OAKLAWN PARK
Kentucky Derby Prep: None (though there IS an Oaks prep!)
Late Pick Four: Races 6-9

$0.50 Pick Four: Race #6

R6: 1,2,4,5
R7: 1,2,3,6,9
R8: 4
R9: 2,6,7,8

80 Bets, $40

I can see why so many people wanted to hear my take on this, because this sequence is HARD. Even with a worthy favorite in the Saturday feature, this could still pay well given that the other three legs are awesome betting races.

The sixth is a claiming races for older horses going a mile. It drew a full field of 12, and I think the divide between the contenders and non-contenders is pretty significant. Of the four I’m using, I’m most intrigued by #5 SECRET HOUSE, who seems like the main speed in a race that doesn’t have much of it. He drops down in class, thumped a similar-quality field two back at Churchill Downs, and ran well in several races here last year.

The seventh is an optional claimer that drew what seems like a strong field for the level. My top pick is a bit of a price, although I think the 10-1 morning line is going to come down a bit. #6 GETTYSBURG has won two in a row for Chris Hartman and has lots of early speed. Joe Bravo should be able to negotiate a friendly trip, and if speed is holding, I think he could be very tough at a bit of a price.

The eighth is the Martha Washington for 3-year-old fillies. There’s a lot of speed signed on, and it just happens that the morning line choice is one of the race’s few closers. That’s #4 SUNSET WISH, who’s won three in a row for Michael Stidham and was impressive in a stakes race at Delta last month. Two turns hasn’t been a problem for her, and further progression would make her very tough to beat.

We’ll finish with a tricky maiden event that, like a few other races in this sequence, will go with a full field. I’m four-deep, and #8 C DUB is my top selection. He’s shown plenty of speed, seems to be coming into this in good form given the work tab, and makes his first start as a gelding. However, I also think #7 KANSAS CITY ZIP is incredibly live at a price. He debuted running an OK fourth in a fast race for the level, and then was bumped after the start going longer last time out. This barn is off to a good start at the meet, and logical forward progression would put him right there.