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?

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.

Thoughts from UMBC’s Stunning Win, Plus Saturday NCAA Tournament Picks/Analysis

Word has long been out on Las Vegas serving as the place to be during the first week of the NCAA men’s basketball tournament. Every casino with a sports book holds an event, and lines to bet often rival those at ritzy nightclubs (except these lines actually move and you may get something out of your investment).

What happened Friday night only served to emphasize that point further. 1-vs.-16 games aren’t the most fun to bet on. Most major sports books don’t even offer money lines for those games, and point spreads are often in the 20’s. Prior to this year, top seeds were 132-0 against the perceived runts of the litter, only occasionally being driven to the point of having to work for a victory.

And then, UMBC came along, and this year’s tournament suddenly ascended to a level that had never been seen before.

This wasn’t the plucky, lovable upstarts from Hickory High eking out a one-point victory to win the state title. No, this was Delta Tau Chi raising holy hell on Faber College’s homecoming parade. UMBC didn’t heroically stick with Virginia for 39 minutes before running a miracle play at the buzzer. The Retrievers systematically destroyed the Cavaliers, solving the ACC champs’ relentless defense with 16 assists on 26 made fields goals while outrebounding their opponents 33-22. Mind you, this was a squad that lost to an average UAlbany team by the score of 83-39 earlier this season, and one that was down nine points with less than nine minutes to go in a true road event that doubled as the America East championship game.

This is the fifth year my dad and I have made the trip to the desert for the first two rounds of March Madness. We didn’t have money on the game, and we watched most of it from a restaurant between Flamingo and The Linq. In the second half, when the Retrievers couldn’t miss, the entire place was rocking with gasps and shrieks. Through all of the talk about how a 16-seed would eventually win a first-round game, it seemed as though we were all stunned that it was actually happening.

This was underscored by what happened in the last minute. In that moment, there was no hooting and hollering. Nobody had winning tickets to celebrate. This wasn’t a great gambling moment, like so many games have already been this year. This was a seminal sports moment, certainly the greatest upset in the history of college basketball, and it was as if we all decided to savor it.

One note on Virginia before we move to plays for Saturday: It’s entirely possible that program has been on the receiving end of the two most shocking defeats in college basketball. Their loss to Chaminade in the 1980’s looms large as well, and while it takes a snake-bitten program to take the top two spots on that dubious list, it’s tough to argue anything else threatens that pair of inglorious moments.

The tournament moves on without them, as it also does for traditional power Arizona and fan favorite Wichita State. The round of 32 kicks off Saturday, and while it’s appealing to back prospective Cinderella stories once again, I’m taking the stance that the slate of games offers several chances for college basketball to experience a reversion to the mean.

#3 Tennessee -5 ½ over #11 Loyola-Chicago
#5 Kentucky -5 ½ over #13 Buffalo

It isn’t that I like being a killjoy (though others may disagree with that), but both of these games have very similar storylines. Loyola-Chicago and Buffalo are far from powerhouse programs, but they won in fun ways. The Ramblers beat the buzzer in knocking off Miami, while Buffalo played a perfect second half in dispatching Arizona.

With that in mind, sentimental money has certainly come in. Both of these lines opened at -6 and dropped down, which stuns me. While it’s fun to root with one’s heart, I’m betting with my head. I think the two SEC teams are simply much better than their opponents, so I’ll give the points and hope for blowouts.

#4 Gonzaga vs. #5 Ohio State: OVER 143

Gonzaga could not have POSSIBLY played worse against UNC Greensboro. In that 68-64 win, the Bulldogs went 5-for-23 from three-point range and 13-for-25 from the free throw line. They did just enough to get by, and with that clunker out of their systems, I think they’ve got a real chance of snapping back into a groove. Ohio State, meanwhile, prevailed in one of the most fun games of the tournament, an 81-73 shootout against South Dakota State. Still, by the numbers, the Buckeyes weren’t all that efficient. They shot 37.5% from the floor, prevailing in large part thanks to the Jackrabbits’ inability to get anyone but Mike Daum going (he was 9-for-20, while everyone else went 15-for-43).

What I’m saying here is that both offenses have a lot to build on, and because of that, a 143-point total seems low. I’ll happily take the over and hope for a shootout between two teams that can certainly provide one.