INTERLUDE: Saratoga, The State of Racing, and a Track that Revived Me

It feels incredibly weird to say a few things that I’m about to say, but here we are.

Firstly, Saratoga kicks off its 2019 season on Thursday.

Secondly, up until a few weeks ago, I…wasn’t overly excited about it.

That sounds blasphemous, but hear me out. I am upstate New York through and through despite living in California since late-2013. I am horse racing through and through despite my primary source of income not coming from the racing business for the first time in seven summers (and despite that nobody associated with the “I Am Horse Racing” videos would EVER want me associated with that campaign!). Saratoga ought to be right in my wheelhouse, and for several years, I’m proud to say it has been. You may have heard about the summer of 2017; if not, ask anyone on Twitter who’s sick and tired of hearing about it.

Having said that, though, this year felt really different as spring transitioned into summer. This hurts to say, but for many reasons, it was hard to be a racing fan for most of 2019. The Santa Anita situation reflected well on no one, with horses breaking down  and track administrators blaming the media while simultaneously giving PETA a seat at the table. Credit where it’s due: Santa Anita became a safer place in the final weeks of its meet, but what happened from January to March is a sad chapter in the history of a venue that has hosted some of the best of what racing has to offer.

Meanwhile, the Kentucky Derby disqualification played right into the hands of the “whoever’s louder wins” school of debate. Worst of all, racing proceeded to squander all momentum from that event in the weeks that followed without creating meaningful change that would’ve increased the interest of novice or casual fans. Racing had a chance to grab public interest, create new fans, and drive a marketing/PR campaign through the summer and fall months that everyone would’ve been proud of. Instead, the two principal players in the Derby controversy will not face each other until next year (if at all), a lawsuit involving the race figures to drag on for months, and NBC opted to run with video of a riderless horse during the Preakness, which created no handle and very little interest in the horses that actually finished the race. Everyone involved whiffed and whiffed hard, and there’s no other way to accurately sum it up.

I wasn’t about to quit the game or anything, though I know plenty of people (some in the industry) who have said their interest and betting activity has declined significantly from this point a year ago. That’s understandable, for a variety of different reasons. I’d planned to take a bit of a break from the sport for a while before fate intervened and gave my “racing fan” side a much-needed reboot.

Those who follow me closely know I moved from Los Angeles to Northern California in early-2018. In doing so, I’ve gotten to know the folks at the California Association of Racing Fairs pretty well. I co-hosted a few seminars last year with track announcer Chris Griffin, and I wound up agreeing to come out to Pleasanton for a few Saturdays during its meet. I did a lot of social media from there, with content ranging from picks and analysis to photos of everything from horses to fair food, and I also helped out with a new segment honoring veterans and their families (one of the coolest things I’ve ever been part of, and Chris deserves all the credit in the world for getting that off the ground).

There are some places that are just plain good for the soul, and Pleasanton is one of them. The people are incredible, everyone seems genuinely happy to be there, and the racing product was solid. The daily seminars were always insightful and entertaining, and I was incredibly proud to co-host one with my father on the final Saturday of the meet (he gave out the late Pick Four!). If you’ve never been to a fair track, go at least once. Northern California will have meets at Sacramento, Santa Rosa, Ferndale, and Fresno before the year is out, and I’m looking forward to heading to at least two of them, maybe three (unfortunately, they do NOT make it easy to get to Ferndale!).

Chris, Dennis Miller, and everyone on the racing side did a heck of a job bringing back my enthusiasm for the game. Horsemen like Allen Aldrich, Jonathan Wong, and Quinn Howey were unbelievably nice and welcoming to me, and plenty of the fans had a genuine interest in wanting to know more about the product. It’s what I needed, and other than one unfortunate meal and its even-more-unfortunate outcome, I wouldn’t have changed a thing about the experience.

Pleasanton’s in the books, and now, it’s on to Saratoga. My batteries are recharged, my spidey senses are tingling, and I’m ready to reclaim what’s rightfully mine. I lost three photos in the last two days of the 2018 meet, and as a result, Liam Durbin beat me by a single win in the pick box on the front page of The Pink Sheet. I can’t, and I won’t, let that happen again. Furthermore, I’m also going after The Saratoga Special’s John Shapazian, who reclaimed the “king of all media” handicapping crown with a genuinely awesome performance all meet long a season ago. That’ll be a tough mountain to climb, but I’ve got my gear and I don’t quit easy.

As a refresher, here’s all the content you can expect from me on a daily basis: Two days before each card, I’ll have picks and analysis up on AndrewChampagne.com. In addition, I’ll have a bankroll play for each day of racing, but this will not be inserted until the previous day’s wagering has concluded. We turned a profit in that section last year, and I’ll be delighted if we can do so again. Furthermore, as topics come to me, I’ll be producing weekly editions of “The Dark Day Files,” columns on any number of topics involving Saratoga and the sport at large. Got an idea for such a column? Reach out via the “contact” section here. I see every note that comes in, and I’ll gladly take any opportunity I can find to show the racing world I can still write a little bit (that “win an Eclipse Award” box on my bucket list has to get checked at some point!).

All of this will also be in The Pink Sheet every racing day (with the exception of “The Dark Day Files,” which is an online-only production). If you like what you see/read from me, or from anyone else associated with its production, support it by buying a print copy when you’re in town. I kid around a lot, and I can be very sarcastic, but I’m as serious as a heart attack when I tell you that local journalism needs your money and/or support a heck of a lot more than I do.

In addition, I’m proud to be back in the fold at Horse Racing Nation, where I wrote some really good stuff in 2014 before a political situation reared its ugly head. I’ll be putting forth daily tickets and analysis pertaining to the NYRA Pick Five, which will be widely available on all platforms. I’m grateful to Mark Midland, Jonathan Lintner, and the entire HRN team for welcoming me back, and hopefully, we can put some money in your pockets.

Finally, I’ll also be continuing with my DRF Bets Formulator Angle videos. Twice a week (usually on Thursday and Friday), I’ll take a deep dive and bring you trends and figures that will hopefully help you cash a ticket. I enjoy doing these videos, and there’s no better place to focus them than at the track where I developed an interest in the sport.

To those that have supported my work in the past: Thank you. There’s no better feeling than helping someone else pick a winner, and I’ve been blessed to be in more positions to do that than most people my age. I can’t promise you fancy hats, or social media strategies that appeal to crowds that wear fancy hats, but what I can promise you is intensive, hard-hitting content that reflects the work I put into each card. If I’m in a situation where my personality can come out to have a little fun, so much the better (speaking of which, you might hear about a trip east later this summer; stay tuned).

Let’s go make some money!

Alameda County Fair Analysis, Selections, and Tickets: 6/15/19

I’ll be on-site for the first two Saturdays of the meet at the Alameda County Fair in Pleasanton, and I’m really excited about what’s ahead. I’ve gotten to know plenty of good people on the Northern California fair circuit, and it’s going to be a blast to be there doing the things I genuinely love to do.

I’ll be tweeting out videos and analysis during those cards, and I’ll also be assisting with a few other cool things the track is doing. Additionally, I’ll also be posting analysis of these Saturday cards here. I’m looking forward to the first Saturday card of fair season, and I think there are opportunities to score.

Enough talk; on with the show!

$0.50 Pick Four: Race #1

R1: 4
R2: 1,2,5
R3: 2,4
R4: 2,4

12 Bets, $6

I’m starting off with an economical look at the early Pick Four, which features three different breeds across the sequence.

We kick things off with a mule race, and I’ve singled #4 FAST PATSY B. She loves Pleasanton, and while she hasn’t won since this meet last year, her best effort almost certainly beats these. I’m hoping the recent near-misses drive the price up a bit, especially since morning line favorite #1 DASHING JACK is just 1-for-14 over this surface.

Arabians take center stage in the second, and my top pick is the second-longest shot on the morning line. That’s #5 MURPHY MHF A, who adds Lasix in her first start on this surface. She’s been running at Delaware and Sam Houston against much better horses, and she took a step forward last time out. I’m using likely favorites #1 WMA FANTOM A and #2 AURUM REX A, but the bigger price is my key horse.

I’m two-deep in each of the last two legs. In the third, I’ll try to beat #3 BRILLIANT RICHIE, who hasn’t shown anything on dirt and may be beatable because of that. I prefer #2 THISONESFORJAMES, who won here last year, and #4 RED CLEM, who has won three of five starts since going to the barn of Steve Sherman.

Finally, the fourth race is a maiden claiming event, and I think the two likely favorites are going to be tough. #2 MIND TRICK has run well on dirt in the past, while #4 PAITASKA has shown plenty of early speed and could be formidable if he’s left alone on the front end.

$0.50 Pick Four: Race #6

R6: ALL
R7: 1,2
R8: 3
R9: 1,2,4,7

48 Bets, $24

Unlike the early sequence, I think the late sequence requires a deeper dive and deeper pockets. I’ve assembled a $24 ticket, and my single is a horse I’m really excited to bet.

The sixth is a very tough race to handicap. I can make cases for all six horses, many of whom haven’t run on dirt before and could easily just need a change in surface. Because of the short field (and because I’m not in love with the likely favorites), I have to buy the race, and in doing so, I’m hoping for a price to shake things up.

In the seventh, I’m focusing on the two inside horses. #1 GIMME SPACE may wind up being the lone closer in a race full of early speed, while #2 OUR MANEKI CAT has shown early zip and could take another step forward in his third career start. There isn’t much in the way of proven form signed on here, so I’ll settle for going two-deep and hoping that’s enough.

The eighth race is where I’ll take a stand, and I’m hoping to get the 4-1 morning line odds on #3 BIG BUZZ. His lone win came on dirt at Santa Anita, and while he’s bred to be a strong turf horse (he’s a full brother to Grade 3 winner Big Score, who has also placed in a Grade 1), there’s a chance he may have been a dirt horse all along. There’s plenty of pace signed on, and I really like him in this spot.

I’m going four-deep to finish things off. The finale is a maiden claimer, and I’m taking a stand against #5 LU CAT. He’s improved since going to Golden Gate, but his two dirt starts were far from impressive. I’ll try to beat him here, and if we do that, this ticket’s payoff potential increases significantly.