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.

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.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“COME ON, BEN! COME ON, BEN!”

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

We agreed.

2017 Preakness Stakes Analysis/Selections, Plus Pick Four/Five Tickets

Coming out of the Kentucky Derby starting gate two weeks ago, Irish War Cry and Rajiv Maragh took a hard left turn and delivered a cross body block that would’ve made Ricky Steamboat, Tito Santana, and Bayern proud. For Classic Empire, the result was the loss of any chance to win the Run for the Roses, and that he somehow managed to salvage fourth despite the incident can be seen, in hindsight, as a minor miracle.

Two weeks later, Classic Empire is back in the Preakness, the second leg of horse racing’s Triple Crown. He’ll line up directly outside of Kentucky Derby winner Always Dreaming, who had nothing short of a perfect trip in his victory earlier this month. That’s not to demean Always Dreaming’s victory, or the stellar jobs done by trainer Todd Pletcher and jockey John Velazquez, but what this means is that Always Dreaming could be a wagering underlay for stand-alone, win-only purposes.

I’ll be using both of those horses in multi-race exotics wagers. However, for the purposes of win-only wagers, I think Classic Empire is the play in the Preakness. He was my Derby pick, and even though he didn’t win that day, he ran a winning race. Given the smaller field and more of a chance to show his tactical speed, he’ll have every opportunity to turn the tables Saturday in Maryland.

With that in mind, here are my multi-race exotics tickets for Preakness Day at Pimlico. There are plenty of opportunities to take swings, and the guaranteed pools mean that if you hit, you’ll likely be rewarded handsomely.

$0.50 Pick Five: Race #2

R2: 2
R3: 1,6,8
R4: 2,3,5
R5: 1*,2,5,6,7
R6: 3,6 (15)

90 or 108 bets, $45 or $54

Many aspects of this ticket require some explanation. First of all, a Pick Four starts in the third, and if you want to play it, you can, for the same amount. As mentioned yesterday, given a single in the first leg of a Pick Five and the substantially-lesser takeout, it makes no sense not to play THAT wager instead.

My single is #2 Commend, whose form going short on turf is very good. He missed by a head three back in stakes company, and it’s safe to assume something went wrong two back, because we didn’t see him for nearly six months. His comeback race was much longer than he wants to run, and he gets his desired trip Saturday in his second start off a layoff.

Finally, you’ll notice an asterisk by #1 Elusive Joni, who I’ve used in the fifth at Pimlico. That means that, if #15 Barney Rebel draws into the sixth and you need a horse to throw out to keep costs down, that’s the one I’d recommend. If you keep her on the ticket, it becomes a $67.50 ticket, and that’s too expensive for me to comfortably give out.

$0.50 Pick Four: Race #6

R6: 1,3,6 (15)
R7: 7
R8: ALL
R9: 5

39 or 52 bets, $19.50 or $26

The value of the ticket is contingent upon whether or not Barney Rebel draws in. Because I had the budget to do so, I also threw in #1 Jose Sea View, who was a tough omission from my Pick Five ticket.

My two singles will likely be heavy favorites. Recruiting Ready has been focused on sprints since a failed attempt going a mile three back, and his runaway win in the Bachelor was extremely impressive. Speaking of impressive, Whitmore is undefeated in sprints, and he’ll likely be favored in the Maryland Sprint, which doubles as the payoff leg of this sequence.

The presence of those two singles allows me to hit the “ALL” button in the eighth, the James W. Murphy. Simply put, I don’t have a clue about this race, so I’m hoping we get a price home between two short prices. If that happens, this Pick Four could pay pretty handsomely.

$0.50 Pick Five: Race #9

R9: 5
R10: 2,3,6,7,10
R11: 2,9
R12: 2,4,7,10
R13: 4,5

80 bets, $40

This is another instance where I feel the need to give out a Pick Five ticket, since there’s a single in the opening leg. That’s Whitmore, who was profiled above. Having said that, you may want to play both the Pick Five and the Pick Four, as the all-stakes Pick Four boasts a guaranteed pool of $2 million.

The Gallorette (Race #10) and the Dixie (Race #12) are both wide-open races. The favorites may not be much more than 3-1 or 7/2 in either spot, which, combined with guaranteed pools, makes for a VERY juicy sequence. The 11th is the Sir Barton, and while Hedge Fund merits respect, my top pick is Time to Travel, who adds Lasix and John Velazquez in his second start for trainer Michael Matz.

We end with the Preakness, and I’m using the two logicals on my Pick Five ticket. However, the course of action I’d recommend, if you’re playing both tickets, is to single whoever your top choice is in the Preakness so you can spread further in some of the other races in the sequence. Want to hit the “ALL” button in either the Gallorette or the Dixie to be safe, or add a few horses into the Sir Barton? Do that. There’s still substantial overlap between your tickets to where you could hit both. It’s all a matter of picking the right horse in the second leg of the Triple Crown. No pressure!

Black-Eyed Susan Day Analysis, Selections, and Pick Four Tickets

Preakness Eve is upon us, and with it comes a stellar card Friday at Pimlico. It features seven stakes races and plenty of wagering opportunities. I’ve got four spot plays and three multi-race wagers, and I’ll dissect all of them below! One note: There is some rain in the forecast, and the analysis here assumes that all races carded for turf stay there.

RACE #5: #6 Carrumba (3-1)

This is the Allaire DuPont Distaff, and I’m far from in love with your likely favorite. That’s #4 Terra Promessa, a fantastic horse at Oaklawn Park and an ordinary one everywhere else. I prefer the aforementioned Carrumba, who makes her third start off a long layoff and adds blinkers for trainer Shug McGaughey. Her first two came around one turn, but some of her best work has come going longer, and more specifically, around two turns. Javier Castellano has signed on to ride, and I think she could sit a dream trip just off the pace.

RACE #7: ICE COLD EXACTAS

This is the Pimlico Special, and it features the heaviest favorite of the card. That’s #6 Shaman Ghost, one of the top handicap horses in the country. However, even with him being a prohibitive favorite, I think there’s a chance to make some money playing exactas, especially if you like a price underneath.

I like two of them, and I’ll be keying Shaman Ghost with both #9 Conquest Windycity and #10 Fellowship. Conquest Windycity ran away with an allowance at Keeneland and seems to have improved a great deal since a long layoff prior to his 4-year-old campaign, while Fellowship ran against Nyquist and Exaggerator last year before going to the bench. He came back with a sharp allowance win going seven furlongs at Laurel, and the presence of Joel Rosario is a big plus.

RACE #10: #6 Take Cover (15-1)

I’m taking a big swing in the Jim McKay Turf Sprint. My thinking is that there is a LOT of speed signed on, and that the race, even at five furlongs, sets up for a closer. Take Cover fits that mold. If you toss the Parx Dash, which came over a yielding turf course, he’s finished in the top two in five of his last six starts. That includes two starts at Laurel Park where he nearly overcame two disastrous outside posts. He’s coming off a layoff here, but the workouts look strong, and if he’s anywhere close to his morning line, I have to play him.

RACE #12: #8 Arbol (5-1)

This is another turf sprint, one with a full field. As such, we may get a bit of a price on Arbol, who gets Lasix for the first time in her second start following a brief freshening. She didn’t run particularly fast early on last out, but she ran furlongs three through five in :34 1/5, which is VERY quick. Naturally, she faded to finish fourth, but given the addition of Lasix and very little quality speed to her inside, I think improvement is in the cards on Friday.

$0.50 Pick Four: Race #4

R3: 3,4,5,6,7
R4: 2,4,9
R5: 6
R6: 1,6,7,12

60 bets, $30

This ticket is built around Carrumba, and if she does not win, we lose. The first race is wide-open, and it seems devoid of any early speed, so whichever horse gets out early may have a good chance to wire the field. Private Client and Lottie headline the fourth, and I’m using both horses, but don’t sleep on Notapradaprice, who seems like the main speed in the race. Finally, I’ll go four-deep in the last leg to close things out, and hopefully, this gives us a nice score to kick off Preakness weekend.

$0.50 Pick Five: Race #7

R7: 6
R8: 3,5,10
R9: 1,5,6,8,10
R10: 4,6
R11: 3,5,9

90 bets, $45

Given the presence of Shaman Ghost in the Pimlico Special, there’s no reason to play the middle Pick Four, which starts in the eighth. This will likely pay considerably more, and it costs the same amount of money given the opening-leg single. Victory to Victory and Compelled headline the Hilltop, and I’m using both, but watch out for Chubby Star, who beat a solid allowance field last out at Keeneland and hasn’t run a bad race this year. I’m spreading in the ninth, and while I was tempted to single Take Cover in the 10th, I had to also use Pay Any Price, whose races at Gulfstream have been very, very good. Finally, we’ll hope to get a closer home in the Black-Eyed Susan, which seems to set up for one given the ample early speed that’s signed on.

$0.50 Pick Four: Race #11

R11: 2,3,5,7,8,9
R12: 8
R13: 5,9
R14: 1,5,8,10,11,12,14

84 bets, $42

The structure of this ticket allows for more spreading in the Black-Eyed Susan, since I’m singling Arbol and only going two-deep in the Skipat (using Chanteline and Clipthecouponannie). That brings us to the finale, which is a total mess. I went seven-deep, and I hope that’s enough to get the winner home if we’re still alive.