CHAMPAGNE’S CAMPAIGNS: Justify, The Triple Crown, And a Realist Hoping He’s Wrong

Few fans of this game want a Triple Crown more than I do. Four times between 2003 and 2014, I went to Belmont Park begging for a coronation, and four times, I left dejected.

Funny Cide left his race on the training track several days before the race and was no match for Empire Maker, a horse who may as well have been typed into the “Belmont winners” table on Wikipedia the moment Toussaud was bred to Unbridled. Smarty Jones was the victim of something that most closely resembled an ambush, one that makes this handicapper do a double-take whenever a certain jockey-turned-commentator criticizes a ride. California Chrome was stepped on coming out of the gate, but quietly ran a gigantic race in defeat. He looked like a winner up until mid-stretch, when the Cal-Bred That Could finally ran out of gas after taking the sport on the first of two wild rides he’d orchestrate. Big Brown…well, we’ll never really know what happened there, and that proved to be the first domino to fall in one of the most fascinating stories in horse racing history (this Deadspin article is required reading).

I say all of this as a preface to a statement I don’t want to make. It’s one that goes against every fiber of my being as a racing fan, which every turf writer and broadcaster still is at heart. If the below statement is wrong, I will gladly endure the mocking on Twitter that I openly spurn most of the time.

Here goes. Inhale…exhale…Justify will not win the Triple Crown.

(ducks to avoid an onslaught of tomatoes, detached chair legs, and anything else that isn’t nailed down)

Can I come up now and explain myself? OK, good.

What Justify has done to this point in his career is nothing short of phenomenal. It isn’t just that he defied the Curse of Apollo, and it’s not just that he went on to add the Preakness Stakes this past Saturday. In less than 100 days, Justify has gone from an unraced prospect to the biggest name in horse racing, winning five starts in an era where top-level horses often need that 100-day period between races for such cardinal sins as running second or third in a Grade 1.

In this era of racing, horses do not do what Justify has done over the past three-plus months. Gone are the days where 3-year-olds would run six to eight times at two, and then have four or five starts before the Triple Crown on top of that. Present-day horses are bred to be “brilliant,” often being sold for hundreds of thousands of dollars based on “breezes” of one furlong long before they’ve fully matured.

Amidst this environment, Justify has won five races, three of the Grade 1 variety and two designated as American classics. That he has done so makes him an exceptional thoroughbred. That he has done so in slightly longer than it took Phileas Fogg to circumnavigate the globe in Jules Verne’s classic novel, “Around the World in Eighty Days,” puts him in different air than even the best horses we’ve seen in recent racing history.

That journey also makes him appear very vulnerable heading into the 2018 Belmont Stakes.

The obvious reason for not being high on Justify was his run in the Preakness, where he held off Bravazo and Tenfold to win by a rapidly-diminishing half-length. Yes, he had to match strides with the talented Good Magic early, but he did so through reasonable fractions over a very fast track. Those splits were significantly slower than the ones he endured two weeks earlier, and while the final time was sharp (a shade below 1:56 for the 1 3/16-mile distance), it’s worth pointing out, yet again, that the sloppy track consistently produced fast times all day long.

Justify earned a 97 Beyer Speed Figure Saturday, a significant regression from the 103 he earned in the Kentucky Derby (which, itself, was a slight decrease from the 107 number he was given for his win in the Santa Anita Derby). A 97 Beyer Speed Figure may not be enough in three weeks against a field that figures to include several horses freshened up since the Kentucky Derby. The likes of Hofburg, Vino Rosso, and fellow WinStar Farm charge Audible could all be waiting for another shot at Justify, and after Saturday’s step back, it’s tough to say there’s any reason for any of those colts not to try again. Bravazo and Tenfold are nice horses, but Bravazo was a distant sixth in the Kentucky Derby, and Tenfold didn’t even qualify to run in that event.

Furthermore, the Belmont Stakes will be Justify’s sixth race in less than four months. On its own, that’s daunting enough. Consider this, though: Justify will be running in that race, contested at the grueling distance of 1 1/2 miles, after barely holding on over second-tier 3-year-olds going five-sixteenths of a mile shorter, all with a picture-perfect trip. There are times where you can safely assume the Belmont distance won’t be a problem for a horse. This isn’t one of those instances.

One of my best friends in the game is Joe Nevills, and prior to the Kentucky Derby, he did a piece on the average winning distances of each Derby sire. Scat Daddy ranked eighth of 14 sires, with an AWD of just under seven furlongs. Meanwhile, Tapit, who has sired the last two Belmont winners and figures to be represented by Hofburg in this year’s renewal, was second on that list, and Curlin (the sire of Vino Rosso) checked in third. On its own, it’s not necessarily a damning statistic, but given what we saw Saturday and the trials and tribulations that come with running five times since mid-February, there are serious questions about whether this undefeated star can go 12 furlongs.

I would love nothing more than to be wrong about all of this. If Justify reveals himself as a superhorse and gallops home like fellow Bob Baffert trainee American Pharoah did three years ago, that’s just fine with me. Racing needs stars, and it needs them to run consistently over long periods of time. I say this next statement without a shred of hyperbole or exaggeration: If Justify was to pull off a sweep of the Triple Crown races after being an unraced maiden less than four months prior to the Belmont, it would be one of the greatest stories in the history of the game.

Unfortunately, what I saw Saturday at the end of the Preakness wasn’t a horse being eased to the wire like one with plenty in reserve. Mike Smith’s subtle easing of Justify as he came to the wire struck me as a move made to save a few drops of gas for another taxing race in three weeks, one where the competition figures to be considerably tougher (even with the likely absence of Good Magic in mind). As a fan, I crave a Secretariat-like performance, one that puts him in horse racing’s highest pantheon of four-legged immortals that boasts a gate opened just once in the past 40 years.

As a handicapper? I don’t think it’s happening.

2018 KENTUCKY DERBY DAY: Analysis, Selections, and Tickets

Saturday is Kentucky Derby Day at Churchill Downs, and amidst the pride and pageantry of the event is a bevy of wagering opportunities. As I did with the races leading up to the Kentucky Oaks, I’ll have race-by-race analysis, as well as three Pick Four tickets down at the bottom of the page (for the Oaks Day write-ups, click here).

It wouldn’t be fair to bury my Derby analysis, so I’ll spend some time dissecting that race up here at the top. As much as I want to go against #7 JUSTIFY, and as much as I feel that 3-1 is a short price to take on a horse that’s run three times, I think he’s the horse to beat if he runs back to his Santa Anita Derby effort. By all indications, he’s done everything right since that race, and while many factors could get him beat (I’m most concerned with how he’ll react to such a large field given that he’s faced just 14 others in his three starts to date), I don’t think the distance will be a problem.

As you can probably infer, I don’t think Justify’s a cinch, or anything close to that. I’m using him on my tickets, but I’ve got two other “A horses” and three “B horses” for exotics purposes. The value on the board could come with #6 GOOD MAGIC, who makes his third start in this form cycle. A similar pattern led to his runaway score in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile, and I like that he’s run well in races with very large fields. Nothing can replicate the environment the Kentucky Derby presents, but here’s a fun stat: While eight horses in this field have won races with fields of 12 or larger signed on, Good Magic’s the only horse in this field to have won two such events (additionally, he ran a close second in the Grade 1 Champagne, which also drew 12). At his likely price, I need him on my tickets.

I also need to use #14 MENDELSSOHN, the runaway winner of the UAE Derby. Yes, he probably rode a bias to that victory, but he also boasts a win in last year’s Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Turf. He had some adventures getting to Churchill Downs, and much has been made of trainer Aidan O’Brien’s struggles in this race, but with the right trip beneath all-world rider Ryan Moore, Beholder’s younger half-brother could be the one they have to catch turning for home.

My three “B horses” are all trained by Todd Pletcher. #5 AUDIBLE, #16 MAGNUM MOON, and #18 VINO ROSSO are all talented, but I think they’re a cut below my top three. Audible and Vino Rosso would certainly benefit from a pace meltdown, while Magnum Moon figures to be close to the pace. All three have a chance on their best days, but they may need perfect trips, which are tough to come by in a 20-horse field.

The main horse I’m leaving out is #11 BOLT D’ORO, and it isn’t for a lack of talent. I think he’s a very solid horse, but I’ve noticed a trend in his two-turn races. He doesn’t seem to be a fan of passing horses late, so where he turns for home is usually where he finishes. In that sense, he’s a lot like 2013 Breeders’ Cup Classic winner Mucho Macho Man, who also had a high cruising speed and was tough to reel in if he hit the top of the stretch in front, but often hung when he had some work left to do at that point. I just don’t think Bolt d’Oro will be in front turning for home, and 8-1 seems short on a horse that hasn’t crossed the wire first since October, doesn’t it?

With that in mind, let’s go through the 11 races leading up to the Derby. One reminder, and it’s the same one that was present in the Oaks preview: Even though there’s a chance of rain in the forecast, these analyses assume that all races carded for the turf stay there.

On with the show!

RACE #1: I’ll look to start off the proceedings with a bit of a price. #2 SHARE THE UPSIDE is 5-1 on the morning line, and I think he’s got a chance to be a very good 3-year-old. His debut win at Oaklawn was strong, as he dueled through fast fractions and moved away well late. That race was validated when the runner-up came back to win, and there doesn’t seem to be much other early speed signed on.

The favorite and second choice will likely be #5 CROSSWALK and #6 ONCE ON WHISKEY, and they’re well-meant. I’ll use them both in exactas with my top pick, and if the track is wet, I’ll also throw in 15-1 shot #4 ARTICULATOR, who has done his best running when the skies have opened up.

RACE #2: This morning line puzzles me. #2 SUMMER LUCK and #1 GRAY SKY are 5/2 and 3-1 respectively, and they’re a combined 3 for 49. Needless to say, I’m not a fan of either horse, and I’ll focus on two others drawn toward the outside.

#6 BIG GRAY ROCKET is my top pick. He went to the Al Stall barn earlier this year and has run against a number of strong horses. The added distance should be to his liking, and I think he’ll be flying late. I’ll also be using #7 SUPER DERECHO, who may inherit the early lead by default. He lost all chance at the break in his last start, and he may be the one they have to catch turning for home.

RACE #3: This is another spot where I’m against several horses that may take money. #8 LOOKIN AT LEE, of course, ran second in last year’s Kentucky Derby, and #5 SONNETEER ran in that race as well. However, they’re a combined 4 for 37, and I hate betting horses like that.

I prefer the other two likely choices. #4 HOLLYWOOD HANDSOME was a good second two back in the Grade 2 New Orleans Handicap, while #6 IRISH FREEDOM may simply hate Santa Anita and could relish the surface switch for new trainer Brad Cox. On wider tickets, I’ll also throw in #3 LANGDARMA, who could outrun his odds if he repeats his two-back effort.

RACE #4: I can’t get past two runners in here. I’m most impressed by #3 DING DONG DITCH and #9 IRISH TERRITORY, and that’s the pair I’ll rely heavily on. Both likely needed their returns off of long layoffs, but repeats of their races two back would make them tough to beat. Irish Territory is my top pick, as that effort was a runner-up finish behind Catholic Boy in the Grade 3 With Anticipation at Saratoga.

I’ll throw #2 MIDNIGHT TEA TIME and #4 UNBRIDLED REBEL underneath. The former showed some talent in his debut before going to the sidelines, while the latter was a close second in back-to-back races at Gulfstream Park.

RACE #5: The big story in this allowance is the return of #8 MCCRAKEN, who is using this race as a prep for next month’s Grade 1 Met Mile. He’s my top pick, but this clearly is not the goal, and it wouldn’t be stunning if the three-time graded stakes winner tasted defeat here.

The other horse I think you need to use is #6 BEHAVIORAL BIAS, who was a close-up fourth in the Grade 3 Commonwealth last time out. I think he’ll like the extra furlong he gets in this race, and he may be a bit of a price to boot.

On wider exotics tickets, I’ll also use #1 SIEM RIEP, #9 DAZZLING GEM, and #10 ROYAL SQUEEZE. Royal Squeeze ran the best race of his career at this route. It was against weaker company, but at his likely price, I need to have him in some capacity, just in case the return to his favorite track wakes him up.

RACE #6: Graded stakes action starts here with the Grade 1 Humana Distaff. Many runners in here exit the Grade 1 Madison at Keeneland, and while I’m using that race’s winner (#1 FINLEY’SLUCKYCHARM), I actually prefer a filly that ran a colossal race in defeat.

That’s #8 AMERICAN GAL, who was making her first start since last summer. She was sent to the lead, raced through wicked fractions, and was beaten just a neck. As mentioned leading up to that race, I felt she may have been the best 3-year-old filly in the country last year when she was healthy, and she could very well move forward off of her Madison performance.

Finley’sluckycharm certainly fits here, and I’ll use her. I also need to throw #5 LEWIS BAY onto my wider tickets. She showed a new dimension in the Madison, when she came flying late and missed by a head. If the pace proves hot, she could be the main beneficiary.

RACE #7: Good freaking luck, folks. This is the Grade 2 Distaff Turf Mile, and the race is completely wide open. I’ve gone seven-deep in the middle Pick Four in this race, and if you can narrow it down further than that, more power to you.

Most of the speed is drawn to the outside, and the main pace threat is likely favorite #11 LA CORONEL. However, she’s no cinch, as longshot #10 PSYCHO SISTER has one way of going and could make it difficult for the Grade 1 winner to clear. If the pace gets fast, it could set things up for the likes of #1 MADAM DANCEALOT, #7 RES IPSA, and #9 ON LEAVE, all of whom could come flying late as the race falls apart.

I also need to use a few others. #2 THUNDERING SKY has tactical speed and is drawn well compared to the other pace factors, #5 DREAM DANCING had a very wide trip last time out and gets Javier Castellano, and I’ll reluctantly throw in #3 DREAM AWHILE, simply because I can’t allow myself to be knocked out of a wager by a Chad Brown-trained turf horse in a wide-open race given how hot that barn has been lately.

RACE #8: This is the Grade 2 Churchill Downs, and it’s drawn one of the top sprinters in the country. That’s #3 IMPERIAL HINT, whose lone loss in his last seven starts was a close second to Roy H in the Grade 1 Breeders’ Cup Sprint. His 2018 debut was a fine prep for this race, and there’s a chance he’s much the best. That being said, his one start at Churchill Downs was horrible, and he won’t be alone on the lead.

Because of these facts, I’ll also use #7 LIMOUSINE LIBERAL, who likes Churchill Downs as much as any other horse in training. He won four stakes races here last year, and he could sit a dream trip just off the speed. If he gets that sort of trip, he could make the 4-1 morning line odds look like an overlay.

RACE #9: The Grade 2 American Turf starts off an all-stakes Pick Four ending with the Kentucky Derby, and it’s a doozy. I can’t fault the logic of those going very deep in this race (or even buying it), but since I’m trying to put together an affordable ticket, I’ll take a bit of a stand and go two-deep.

My top pick is #11 UNTAMED DOMAIN. This was one of the best 2-year-old turf horses around last year, and he was beaten just a length by Mendelssohn in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Turf. He likely needed his first race back, and the Tampa Bay Derby is a complete throw-out because Untamed Domain is not a dirt horse. I think we’ll see him on his A-game Saturday, and those last two races mean we may get a bit of a price.

The other horse I have to use is #3 THREEANDFOURPENCE, who accompanied stablemate Mendelssohn to the U.S. and will be ridden by all-world jockey Ryan Moore. He’s been competitive with Mendelssohn on turf and gets Lasix for the first time, and like Untamed Domain, he’s not a dirt horse, so that thumping last time out in Dubai is easy for me to ignore.

RACE #10: The Grade 3 Pat Day Mile drew a strong field, including a few runners that wouldn’t have been ridiculously out of place in the Kentucky Derby. The 14-horse field should ensure bettable prices all around, although I’d be pretty surprised if my top selection went off at his morning line price.

That’s #8 MASK, who was getting rave reviews following two straight impressive wins to start his career. He was briefly sidelined with an injury, and while he hasn’t run since January, anything close to the form we’ve seen would make him a major player. I doubt we’ll get 4-1, but 5/2 or so wouldn’t deter me from betting him.

In case Mask needs a race, I’ll also use #1 NATIONAL FLAG, who is 2 for 2 this season and exits an impressive win in the Grade 3 Bay Shore. He may need a better break than the one he had that day, but he’s a certain contender with a clean trip, and if Mask doesn’t show up, National Flag strikes me as the most logical winner.

RACE #11: I’ll end this portion of my analysis by taking a stand against the likely favorite in the Grade 1 Turf Classic. That’s #10 BEACH PATROL, who won a pair of Grade 1 races last year and was second in the Breeders’ Cup Turf. He makes his first start of 2018 here, and he’ll likely be a heavy favorite.

Having said that, I have serious reservations about him. He’s at his best going much longer than this nine-furlong distance, and there’s a chance he needs this race off of a six-month layoff. I’m leaving him off of my Pick Four tickets and solely opting to use him in saver doubles that end in the Kentucky Derby.

My top pick is #7 SYNCHRONY, who’s gotten exceptionally good since Joe Bravo hopped aboard two starts ago. He most recently won a Grade 2 at Fair Grounds, and while he’s got a strong turn of foot, he’s also shown a bit of tactical speed and shouldn’t have to rally from out of the clouds.

I’ll also use #3 KURILOV, who exits a key race won by next-out Grade 1 winner Heart to Heart, as well as #6 ARKLOW, whose turf form looks much better if you toss his two New York races from last summer. I’m hoping Beach Patrol isn’t fully cranked and wants to go longer, and if I’m right, the potential for a nice late Pick Four payoff goes way up. Speaking of which…

PICK FOUR TICKETS

$0.50 Pick Four: Race #2

R2: 6,7
R3: 3,4,6
R4: 3,9
R5: 1,6,8,9,10

60 Bets, $30

There are no singles, but I’m narrow enough early to be able to spread in the payoff leg. Perhaps McCraken wins and makes that strategy look foolish, but if he’s simply using this race to stretch his legs, I want to get paid.

$0.50 Pick Four: Race #5

R5: 6,8
R6: 1,5,8
R7: 1,2,3,5,7,9,11
R8: 3,7

84 Bets, $42

This one starts where the early one ends, and I’ll opt for a different, “A-only” approach to kick it off since I absolutely need to spread in the third leg. I wish I could hit the “ALL” button in that race, but barring a significant scratch, I can’t do that and give out a ticket that stays within a reasonable budget, so this will have to do.

$0.50 Pick Four: Race #9

R9: 3,11
R10: 1,8
R11: 3,6,7
R12: 5,6,7,14,16,18

72 Bets, $36

The philosophy here is pretty simple. If I can get to the 20-horse Kentucky Derby, I feel confident that I’m going to hit for a decent sum of money (especially if one of my non-Justify horses wins the main event). Between field sizes, the massive pool we’re likely to see, and the lack of Beach Patrol on my ticket, even a somewhat formful set of results could lead to a big score, and with the time between the Turf Classic and the Derby, such a scenario would leave me plenty of time to be nervous before the Run for the Roses.

2018 KENTUCKY OAKS DAY: Analysis, Selections, and Tickets

One of the biggest racing weekends of the year is coming up at Churchill Downs. Friday is Kentucky Oaks Day, and, in keeping with a tradition started several years ago, I’ll offer race-by-race analysis, as well as a few multi-race exotics tickets once we get to the end. I think there are several live prices throughout the undercard races, and hopefully, we’ll pad the bankroll heading into Kentucky Derby Day.

One note before we start: This analysis assumes all races carded for the turf stay there (there’s a pretty good chance of rain Friday, though its potential effects on the Oaks Day card are unclear). If races get rained off the turf, those analyses (and any tickets containing those races) become obsolete.

Anyway, with all of that out of the way, let’s take a look!

RACE #1: The opener drew a short field of six, and the likely favorite is #6 GO GOOGLE YOURSELF, who won nicely at Keeneland last time out and boasts a win over this surface. She’s a logical favorite, and I’ll use her in exotics with two others. #5 AMERICA’S TALE ran two huge races late last year before trying stakes company, and this level’s probably where she wants to be.

I’ll also throw in #2 TURBO SHAFT, who’s 10-1 on the morning line. She won her first two dirt starts before a rough trip behind a very good filly last time out in a stakes race, and while this is her first dirt start around two turns, there’s plenty of stamina in her pedigree, and she could sit a dream trip off of a lively pace.

RACE #2: TVG’s Caleb Keller had it right when he said, “if a Chad Brown trainee beats you on turf, that’s your fault.” The barn is going great guns right now and saddles likely favorite #7 DABINETT, who debuted with a second-place finish at Keeneland. She’s a must-use (at least defensively), and I’ll also keep an eye on #9 PACHINKO, who makes her North American debut off a long layoff for trainer Brad Cox. Her pedigree says she wants distance, and she got it in France, where her last two starts came going 10 furlongs or longer. Any European getting Lasix for the first time is attractive (especially at 8-1 on the morning line), and the recent workouts indicate she’s got some speed.

Those are my top two, and for exotics purposes, I’ll also recommend #2 WILD N READY (who likely needed her most recent start at Keeneland) and #5 CHEEKY CHERUB (a big price with turf pedigree that tries grass for the first time).

RACE #3: This race may house a popular multi-race exotics single. That’s #8 BUGLE NOTES, who will likely go off much shorter than his 5/2 morning line. He fetched $825,000 at auction back in 2016, and for good reason, as he’s by Ghostzapper and out of a mare with a tremendous pedigree. He’s worked very well at Palm Beach Downs, and this doesn’t seem like the toughest maiden special weight event in the world. I can’t get past him on top.

If you’re looking for horses to use underneath, first-time starters #5 ENCINITAS and #10 SHARKY’S LEDGER could have some talent. Encinitas is out of a mare whose dam also produced the speedy Smoke Glacken, while Sharky’s Ledger is a half to Grade 2 winner Private Vow and could be a contender despite probably wanting more distance.

RACE #4: This turf route strikes me as a “single or use as many as you can” kind of race. #11 KRAMPUS is the morning line favorite, and justifiably so given his record, but the post is not encouraging. If he’s compromised by a wide trip, the race becomes wide-open. I think Ian Wilkes holds a pretty strong hand here, as he saddles 10-1 shots #4 FIFTH TITLE and #5 THATCHER STREET. The former is at his best on this turf course and ran well off the bench last time out, while the latter drops down in class and has plenty of tactical speed, which could give him a perfect trip in a race that doesn’t seem to have much pace signed on.

RACE #5: Stakes action commences here in the Grade 2 Eight Belles, which has drawn some talented 3-year-old fillies. It’s apparent there’s a lot of speed signed on, and for that reason, #6 GAS STATION SUSHI seems like the most logical winner. She came back running in last month’s Grade 3 Beaumont at Keeneland, and this race could have a similar setup to that event. The other appealing option from a pace standpoint is #3 MIA MISCHIEF, who showed she didn’t necessarily need the lead last time out at Oaklawn Park. She’s run well here in the past, and she could get first run turning for home.

RACE #6: This is the first Grade 1 of the weekend. It’s the La Troienne for older fillies and mares, and #3 ABEL TASMAN will likely be a heavy favorite. I’ll use her, but I don’t think she’s a cinch. This isn’t the long-term goal for these connections, and she may need a race given that we haven’t seen her since the Breeders’ Cup Distaff.

I think the must-use in this race is #8 MARTINI GLASS, who has gotten quite good over the past year. Remember when some “racing fans” tried to knock Songbird for only beating Martini Glass by a length in last year’s Grade 1 Delaware Handicap? Since then, this mare has won two graded stakes races and placed second in another Grade 1. She’s 6-1 on the morning line, and I think she’s got a big chance to spring the upset.

RACE #7: I’ll take a bit of a stand in the Turf Sprint, where I’m not crazy about the two morning line favorites. #7 VISION PERFECT ran a big one last time out, but that was at Gulfstream, a much different turf course than what he’ll see Friday, and #9 BUCCHERO draws poorly and may have developed a bit of a hanging habit. Of the two, I prefer the latter, since there’s a more consistent body of work there, but he’ll be more of a defensive use than anything else.

My top pick is #1 DELECTATION, who gets Lasix for the first time off a long layoff for new trainer Wesley Ward. She’s a three-time Group 3 winner overseas, and her then-connections thought enough of her to try her in a pair of Group 1 events against some of Europe’s best horses. I would be thrilled if we got the 6-1 morning line price.

Additionally, while I don’t think he can win, I’m intrigued by the presence of #4 RISER, and I think he’s a must-use on the bottom of your exacta and trifecta tickets. He hasn’t run since September, he’s never raced outside of the Pacific time zone, his lone race on turf was a dud…and he shows up on Oaks Day to run against a good group of turf sprinters? My thinking is that he’s probably going very well, and I doubt astute horseman Blaine Wright would ship in solely to see the sights.

RACE #8: We’ll kick off a Pick Four with the Grade 2 Alysheba, and I’m against a few horses that may take money. #4 BACKYARD HEAVEN ran a gigantic number last time out at Aqueduct, but that wasn’t a great field he beat, and I think he’s a bounce candidate. Additionally, #5 HOPPERTUNITY, while a hard-knocking horse every smart racing fan would love to own, may have lost a step off of his top form, and I think he’ll be overbet.

My top two, in order, are #3 ALWAYS DREAMING and #1 GOOD SAMARITAN. Always Dreaming hasn’t won since last year’s Kentucky Derby, but I actually thought his return was OK. He was close to a solid pace in the Grade 2 Gulfstream Park Mile and did well to hang on for second in a race that was likely shorter than he wants to go (he’s 0-for-3 in one-turn events). Improvement is logical second off the bench, and the return to a two-turn route of ground is a big, big plus. Meanwhile, if you draw lines through every 10-furlong race Good Samaritan has run, his record suddenly looks much, much better. It’s possible he may be best at this type of trip, and while the likely pace scenario doesn’t necessarily work in his favor, it won’t surprise me if he’s a few lengths closer to the pace than usual.

Finally, on wider exotics tickets, I’ll also use #8 AWESOME SLEW. I’m not crazy about him going two turns, but he always seems to run well, and his usual 98-102 Beyer Speed Figure (a span he’s hit in every start for more than a year) would likely put him right there if he can stretch out effectively.

RACE #9: Paging Churchill Downs: Why are you throwing an allowance into a Pick Four ending with the Kentucky Oaks? How hard would it be to put together an all-stakes Pick Four? I know the semantics of why tracks do this (perhaps the weather forecast played a role), but as a player, it’s incredibly frustrating, and from a marketing standpoint, wouldn’t it be easier to sell an all-stakes Pick Four? Swap this 10-horse field with the 11-horse Turf Sprint, and you’ve got a heck of a sequence, even with a heavy chalk in the third leg (more on her later).

OK, now that we’ve got that out of the way, I think this is a race where you could go many different directions. #2 ELECTRIC FOREST will probably be favored off of a solid debut win at Keeneland. She did it the right way, rating off of a fast pace before kicking home. If she steps forward, she’ll be tough. If she doesn’t, it’s anyone’s race, and I’ll focus on a few prices.

#1 SAINTS’ GIRL won two in a row before trying two turns last time out. She didn’t have a chance that day given the rough trip she had, but she’s back at a one-turn route here, which should be a big help. If you can forgive the last-out effort, 10-1 seems like too big a price, especially given the presence of Florent Geroux. Another 10-1 shot that interests me is #3 C P QUALITY, who overcame some trouble in her debut win at Oaklawn Park. She showed talent in the mornings leading up to that race, the local work since then is solid, and it’s worth noting that Gary Stevens has signed on to ride.

RACE #10: If she runs here, #11 RUSHING FALL may be the shortest-priced horse of the day, and for good reason. She’s 4-for-4 and has never really been tested, and while the post is less than ideal, it would likely take significant improvement from another horse in the Grade 3 Edgewood to knock her off. However, if Rushing Fall steps forward in her second start off the bench (which Chad Brown trainees often do), then I firmly believe the race is for second money. She is also entered in Saturday’s Grade 2 American Turf, though, and if she scratches, this race suddenly becomes wide open (and my Pick Four ticket goes out the window!).

If you’re looking for a price to throw into the exotics underneath (or a price to key in the event of Rushing Fall’s possible scratch), consider #7 TOINETTE, who has improved with every start to this point in her young career. She won at this distance last time out and has shown a strong turn of foot, which should help since there appears to be some speed signed on.

RACE #11: This is the main event. It’s the Grade 1 Kentucky Oaks, and if you’re looking for a price, well…

Simply put, I’ll be stunned if a horse other than #10 MIDNIGHT BISOU or #14 MONOMOY GIRL wins this race. They seem head and shoulders above their fellow 3-year-old fillies, and these are the two I’ll be keying in on in multi-race exotics (specifically the Oaks/Derby double, where I’d advise using three or four Derby horses and playing the fewer combinations for more money). Of the two, I prefer Midnight Bisou given the likely race shape, and I’ll be pretty happy if we get 5/2 come post time.

It’s tough to recommend a longshot as anything other than exotics filler, but the 30-1 bomb I’m a bit intrigued by is #6 KELLY’S HUMOR. I think you can toss her races two and three back, as she had a rough trip in the Grade 1 Alcibiades and likely had some sort of medical mishap in the Grade 2 Golden Rod since we didn’t see her from then until April. She came back running in the Grade 3 Beaumont, and if the race falls apart (a possibility given that the riders of Monomoy Girl, #3 CLASSY ACT, #8 HEAVENHASMYNIKKI, and #9 TAKE CHARGE PAULA will all likely gun it out of the gate), I think she could get a piece of it at a big price.

PICK FOUR TICKETS

$0.50 Pick Four: Race #2

R2: 2,5,7,9
R3: 8
R4: 1,4,5,11
R5: 1,3,5,6

64 Bets, $32

This is built around Bugle Notes, and hopefully we can get a price or two home elsewhere to make this pay a bit. I spread a bit in the third and fourth legs to include “B horses” #1 KEEP QUIET (R4) and both #1 AMY’S CHALLENGE and #5 TALK VEUVE TO ME (R5).

$0.50 Pick Four: Race #4

R4: 1,2,4,5,6,8,11,12
R5: 3,6
R6: 3,8
R7: 1,9

64 Bets, $32

I added a number of “C horses” in the first leg, as I went pretty narrow elsewhere and could afford to buy some security. If you want to punch the “ALL” button, you can do that, but that would drive the ticket up to $48, which is a bit rich for my blood (it’s a two-day marathon, not a sprint!). I’ll use only my “A horses” in the Eight Belles, and I’m two-deep in the La Troienne and Turf Sprint.

$0.50 Pick Four: Race #8

R8: 1,3,8
R9: ALL
R10: 11
R11: 10,14

60 Bets, $30

I can afford to buy the second leg because I’m so narrow elsewhere, so I’ll do that and hope for a price to knock tickets out of what figures to be a big pool. I’m leaving off a few contenders in the Alysheba (for reasons stated above), singling Rushing Fall in the Edgewood, and hoping for a logical result in the Kentucky Oaks.

CHAMPAGNE’S CAMPAIGNS: 2018 Kentucky Derby Morning Line

I have a tremendous amount of respect for morning line makers. They have one of the most thankless jobs in all of racing. Nobody congratulates them when they correctly peg the way the public bets a race, but when they get a favorite wrong in a big race, out come the Twitter barbarians.

I’m guilty of criticizing morning lines, but it’s my view that, if you’re going to do that, you need to be prepared to make your own attempt at it. It’s not an easy thing to do, especially in races with large fields. Not only do you need to accurately gauge how gamblers will play it, but it needs to mathematically check out with a point total between 115 and 125 points (for an explanation on odds lines and point values for certain values, click here).

With all of this in mind, I’m going to take a stab at a Kentucky Derby morning line. Mine comes out to 124.2 points, which just barely checks out from a math standpoint. One disclaimer before we dive in: This is not an indication of the way I will analyze the race, nor an indication of which horse I will pick. This is my guess at the way the public will bet the race, and on that note, let’s take a look!

THE FAVORITE

Justify: 4-1

Justify will almost certainly be favored. His three races this year have all been impressive victories, including his Santa Anita Derby score over Bolt d’Oro. There’s a chance he goes off lower than this, but I couldn’t make a morning line that checked out mathematically with him lower than 4-1 (late defections could, of course, change this).

THE EASTERN JUSTIFY

Magnum Moon: 6-1

Like Justify, Magnum Moon will look to defy the Apollo Curse on the first Saturday in May. He didn’t race as a 2-year-old, but he’s 4-for-4 this year, with runaway wins in the Arkansas Derby and Rebel. The way he drifted out in his most recent start is a bit of a concern, but ultimately, I think he’s the most likely second choice.

THE OTHER MAIN CONTENDERS

Audible: 8-1
Mendelssohn: 8-1

Audible has only run twice this year, but both of those starts have been visually-impressive wins in Florida. The Todd Pletcher trainee showed versatility in the Florida Derby, when he rated well off of an insane early pace and made a big move. Meanwhile, Mendelssohn crushed an overmatched group in the UAE Derby and has shipped to the States successfully before. He’s Beholder’s younger half-brother, and while Aidan O’Brien has not won this race before, few conditioners in the world are better than he is.

WAIT, THEY’RE DOUBLE DIGITS?

Bolt d’Oro: 10-1
Good Magic: 10-1

If I had told you, in November, that these two horses would be double-digits on the Kentucky Derby morning line, you probably wouldn’t have believed me. However, Bolt d’Oro was second to Justify in the Santa Anita Derby, and while Good Magic won the Blue Grass, memories of his dud in the Fountain of Youth could be fresh in the minds of horseplayers. It’s possible either or both of these horses come down a point or two, but I couldn’t put them below my projected top four.

IS THE WOOD STILL A MARQUEE DERBY PREP?

Vino Rosso: 15-1

First of all, can the tradition-first stalwarts among us begrudgingly admit that the graded stakes committee made the right call downgrading the Wood a few years ago? OK, good. Anyway, Vino Rosso finally took a long-awaited step forward in that race, and despite having to sweat out an inquiry/objection, he has the look of a horse that could be moving forward. He’s got a substantial distance to close on the divisional leaders, but the presence of trainer Todd Pletcher and his recent victory ensure that he won’t be an outrageous price.

THE “WISE-GUY” HORSES

Hofburg: 20-1
Noble Indy: 20-1
Quip: 20-1
Solomini: 20-1

Each of these horses has angles to like. Hofburg is still eligible for a non-winners-of-one allowance, but he ran second in the Florida Derby, which doubled as just his third career start. Noble Indy may be Todd Pletcher’s fourth-best 3-year-old, but he showed grit in taking the Louisiana Derby. Quip won the Tampa Bay Derby and was a game second behind Magnum Moon. Finally, Solomini hasn’t crossed the wire first since the Los Alamitos Futurity (which featured a controversial disqualification), but he’s trained by Bob Baffert and has a running style that hints the added distance of the Derby won’t be a problem. If you ask 10 handicappers their opinions of this race, chances are at least one or two of them will bring up one of these horses as a threat to hit the board at a nice number.

GOOD, JUST NOT THIS GOOD (AND A FANCY NAME)

Enticed: 30-1
Flameaway: 30-1
Gronkowski: 30-1
My Boy Jack: 30-1
Promises Fulfilled: 30-1

We’ll get to Gronkowski in a minute. The other four have all won races on the road to the Kentucky Derby, but they seem outclassed by the best of the best in this spot. One or two of them may drift down a few points (most likely hard-trying Flameaway and/or late-runner My Boy Jack), but I felt more comfortable putting them here than anywhere else.

Meanwhile, Gronkowski earned a spot in the starting gate thanks to success in Europe. By any conceivable measure, he’s outclassed in this spot, and on ability alone, he should be 50-1. However, I think he’ll get plenty of money from once-a-year bettors and those betting based on name. That meant I couldn’t put him with my last group, which is below.

UP AGAINST IT

Bravazo: 50-1
Firenze Fire: 50-1
Free Drop Billy: 50-1
Lone Sailor: 50-1

Bravazo and Free Drop Billy may drift down a few points, but when Magnum Moon moved forward enough to be my clear second choice, I had to drop them from 30-1 to 50-1 on my line for it to mathematically check out. Meanwhile, Lone Sailor hasn’t won in a while, and Firenze Fire will almost certainly be the longest shot on the board given his apparent distance limitations.

ALSO-ELIGIBLES

Combatant: 30-1
Restoring Hope: 30-1
All Others: 50-1

Of the horses on the outside looking in, only Combatant and Restoring Hope strike me as anything other than hopeless longshots. Combatant (21st on the list) has had some rough racing luck and could come running late, while Restoring Hope (26th) is a Bob Baffert trainee, which alone is likely enough to move some money. None of the others seem logical, and if those horses get in, they’ll be 50-1 on my line (and other horses will likely come down in price if I have enough wiggle room to do that).

Analysis, Selections, and Tickets: Kentucky Derby Preps and Pick Four Sequences, PLUS: A STRANGE Week

We’ll get to my analysis of the three Kentucky Derby prep races, and the Pick Four sequences that contain them, shortly. However, I first need to start out by saying…well, by saying that it’s been a REALLY weird week.

It started with a small right-wing blog picking up a letter that I wrote to WRGB, the Sinclair-owned TV station in my former hometown of Albany, N.Y., criticizing their airing of the company-wide message they were roundly panned for last week. This was not a political stance, but one coming from the point of view of a journalist with a conscience (yes, we exist). Naturally, this got contorted to their desired degree of spin, and that made for a number of interesting conversations with people.

As strange as that was, the truly bizarre stuff happened Thursday. Those of you who truly know me know the kind of person I am. However, over the past 13 months, I’ve had some fun on Twitter occasionally morphing into a character that took several forms depending on what was being discussed. Most of the time, I was puffing my ample chest out over a successful season at Saratoga, begging for Beemie Award consideration (hi, Jason), or otherwise doing my best to troll people I liked.

Some people picked up on what I was doing right away (oddly, most of them are fellow diehard professional wrestling fans who appreciate someone cutting a good promo!). However, thanks to several people I like and respect a great deal (likely much more than they want me to, in all honesty), I caught wind that my perception among certain horse racing people was that of a pompous buffoon who actually believed his own hype. That necessitated the below tweet, which you’ve likely seen by now.

If you think, for one solitary second, that I truly believe my own hype, you’re misguided. What you’ve seen over the past 13 months was a gimmick constructed thanks to a fateful conversation that I’ve mentioned before on this website. I came to the conclusion that, if certain people were going to believe I was an unbelievably strong personality (to the point of that being anything but a compliment), I was going to have as much fun with it as I could.

The “128 winners at Saratoga” stuff? That was inspired by “Married With Children” protagonist/American hero Al Bundy’s rants centering around “four touchdowns in a single game.” Since I’ve mentioned that, I feel the need to include this.

You’re welcome. Anyway, the “best to never win a Beemie Award” stuff, and all the posturing that happened there? That was entirely the result of much too much time spent watching professional wrestling with arrogant bad guys who always seemed to have the best lines at their disposal. With said “strong personality” at my disposal (and by the way, can you tell that was a REALLY bad choice of words by an unnamed person yet?), it was natural to portray this character as a rebel.

If you fell for that and thought that was a 100% accurate representation of me in real-life, that means I probably did a heck of a job with the gimmick, but it also means that I need to pull the curtain back. As I’ve told a few people over the past few days, I’m a slightly introverted nerd who has no problem with self-deprecating humor. I’m incredibly fortunate to have my job and the professional respect that I have for doing what I do, and not a day goes by where I don’t consider myself genuinely blessed to be in that position.

As the tweet above says, if what you’re reading is analysis, or my thoughts on a race, that’s me, as I am. If you think that the person pandering for Beemie consideration or doing a Santino Marella victory celebration is actually who I am, know that it isn’t. Many of you out there got the gist of what I was doing (including a few people that have done a lot for me simply by existing), but enough of you didn’t, so I needed to expound on that before we went further.

Now that we’re 700 words into this article, let’s dive into some Saturday analysis! We’ve got three Kentucky Derby prep races scheduled, and they all come within fun late Pick Four sequences at their respective tracks. I’ll take a look at all three, and we’ll go in alphabetical order of tracks, so we’ll start in New York.

AQUEDUCT

$0.50 Pick Four: Race #8

R8: 2,3,4,5,6,9,11
R9: 3,4,5
R10: 5,9
R11: 2

42 Bets, $21

As a heads-up, this ticket assumes that the 11th race stays on the turf. If it doesn’t, this ticket is rendered obsolete, as I don’t have a clue who wins if it’s run on the main track. However, for now, it’s a fun sequence that I think you can play for cheap.

The Grade 1 Carter Handicap kicks things off, and I thought this was the toughest race of the sequence. If you want to buy the race, I understand, but I only went seven-deep so as to keep the cost of the ticket down (if it chalks out, it won’t pay much). #2 ARMY MULE and #11 AWESOME SLEW figure to take most of the action, but I needed to use several others as well. That includes many logical contenders, as well as 20-1 shot #6 PETROV, whose recent slate looks much better if you can bring yourself to draw a line through that clunker two back. This is a flexible runner campaigned by savvy connections, and I needed him on my ticket.

The ninth is the Grade 3 Bay Shore for 3-year-olds going seven furlongs. #4 NATIONAL FLAG and #5 ENGAGE will take much of the money, but I thought #3 JUSTAHOLIC was intriguing at his 8-1 morning line price. He’s stepped forward in every start to date and topped a decent Todd Pletcher trainee last time out at Tampa. This barn has done terrific work with a limited number of runners, and it’s interesting to see them show up in this spot far from home.

The 10th is the Grade 2 Wood Memorial (and seriously, can we begrudgingly admit that the graded stakes committee got it right with the downgrade?). #5 ENTICED will be a popular single off of his win in the Grade 3 Gotham, and he could easily make it two in a row. However, I also needed to use #9 VINO ROSSO, who wants every bit of this distance and may have bounced last time out off of a career-best effort two back. We may get a bit of a price on him today, and it’s not inconceivable to think he’s sitting on a big effort.

The 11th is the aforementioned turf race, and if it stays on the grass, I think #2 ASTOUNDING will be tough to beat. He’s been running against much better horses since going to Jason Servis’s barn in 2016, and this spot represents significant class relief. His most recent effort wasn’t good, but that came on dirt off of a layoff. This is the route he wants, and if he gets a good trip, I think he’s going to be formidable (even at a short price). If he doesn’t win, I don’t know who does.

KEENELAND

$0.50 Pick Four: Race #7

R7: 2,5,7,10,12,13
R8: 2,8,10,11,12
R9: 1
R10: 4,10,11

90 Bets, $45

A few notes before we start: First of all, this ticket is obviously contingent on Keeneland running this card in the first place. I have no insider knowledge, nor have I ever claimed to, but if the winter storm barreling towards Kentucky is as bad as some forecasts are claiming, this could get dicey. Additionally, if the first leg comes off the turf, my ticket is irrelevant.

Good? Good. We’ll kick it off with the Grade 2 Shakertown, which has drawn a field of 14 turf sprinters. #13 DISCO PARTNER is the 5/2 morning line favorite, and I think he can win, but he’ll need to negotiate a trip from a tough post in his first start since the Breeders’ Cup to do so. I’m using many others as well, including #12 BOUND FOR NOWHERE, who’s 3-for-3 in America and was a credible fourth in last year’s Group 1 Commonwealth Cup at Royal Ascot. If you toss the effort two back at Deauville, he more than fits with this group, and I’ve got a tough time believing this Wesley Ward trainee will be 20-1 when the gates are sprung.

The eighth is the Grade 1 Madison, which is shaping up to be a tremendous race. It’s drawn Grade 1-quality fillies and mares and a field of 13, which makes things very tricky. I went five-deep and used most of the main contenders. My top pick is #11 AMERICAN GAL, who I think may have been the best 3-year-old filly in the country last year when healthy. She’s been off since a dominant performance in the Grade 1 Test, but she’s been working well for Simon Callaghan and has handled shipping east with aplomb in the past. If she’s right, I think she’ll be tough.

The ninth race is the Grade 1 Ashland, and it features one of the top 3-year-old fillies in the country. That’s #1 MONOMOY GIRL, who figures to be one of the favorites for next month’s Kentucky Oaks. There isn’t much other early speed in the race, and I think she’ll be able to dictate the terms all the way around. I respect #2 ESKIMO KISSES, but Monomoy Girl seems like a different kind of filly, and she’s an easy single for me.

We’ll finish with the main event, as the 10th is the Blue Grass, which doubles as the race that I analyzed for this week’s DRF Derby Countdown Weekly Guide. You can find my thoughts there (as well as my preferred single-race wagering strategy), but to summarize, I think #4 KANTHAKA is very appealing at a price. I’ll also use likely favorite #11 GOOD MAGIC, and I’ll defensively use #10 FREE DROP BILLY, just in case he returns to the form he showed last year at Keeneland when he won the Grade 1 Breeders’ Futurity.

SANTA ANITA

$0.50 Pick Four: Race #9

R9: 3,6
R10: 3,5,6,7,9
R11: 3
R12: 1,2,4,6,7,10

60 Bets, $30

I’ve got a gripe to address before we start. Santa Anita has three stakes races being run outside of this Pick Four sequence (not counting the Arabian race that ends the day), which ends with an optional claiming event. It’s still a juicy sequence that could pay more than it should given the possibility of several short-priced winners, but why the lack of an all-stakes Pick Four on a big day? I’m sure there’s a logical business reason for this, but from a fan’s perspective, this doesn’t make a lot of sense to me.

Anyway, onward and upward. The ninth is the Grade 1 Santa Anita Derby, and I’m not getting cute. I’m using #3 BOLT D’ORO and #6 JUSTIFY, like pretty much every other ticket on the planet. Simply put, I think these are two of the top four 3-year-olds on the road to the Kentucky Derby right now, and I can’t rationalize throwing anyone else in.

I’m spreading in the 10th, the Grade 2 Royal Heroine. I would really like #6 ENOLA GRAY and #9 SASSY LITTLE LILA if it was solely one of them running, but while I think either could win, the scenario of them speeding away early and getting run down is certainly possible. As such, I’m using a number of closers, including #3 BEAU RECALL, who was the very last horse I threw onto the ticket. I don’t like that she seems to enjoy running second or third, but this race sets up for her, as it does for fellow closers #5 THUNDERING SKY and #7 MADAME STRIPES.

I wish I could give you an interesting alternative to #3 MIDNIGHT BISOU in the 11th, the Grade 1 Santa Anita Oaks. However, I can’t do that. I think she may be the best 3-year-old filly in training right now, and the way she’s moving forward with every start leads me to believe she’s sitting on a big effort. The ample early speed in here is a plus, and I will be stunned if we get 6/5 on her at post time. If we do, I think that’s a considerable overlay.

As mentioned, an optional claimer ends this sequence, and it’s a tough betting race. If you’ve got the budget to buy the race, by all means do that. I settled on going six-deep, and while I used likely favorites #1 LASEEN and #2 PANTSONFIRE, I’m not in love with either. If I had to make a top pick, it’d be #7 THE TULIP, who lost her action two back and should be rolling late at a bit of a price following her win last time out. I also have to use 15-1 shot #4 MS WAKAYA, who’s run into some sharp horses in her prior tries going long on turf. She’s got some tactical speed, which isn’t abundant in this field, and I wouldn’t be shocked if apprentice jockey Franklin Ceballos boots her to the front early and sees how long she can stay there.