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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

TAMPA BAY DOWNS

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

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

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

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

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

$0.50 Pick Four: Race #9

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

60 Bets, $30

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

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

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

GULFSTREAM PARK

$0.20 Pick Six: Race #7

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

250 Bets, $50

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

OAKLAWN PARK

$0.50 Pick Four: Race #6

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

54 Bets, $27

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

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

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

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

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

SANTA ANITA

$0.50 Pick Four: Race #11

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

80 Bets, $40

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Enough talk; on with the show!

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

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

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

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

$0.50 Pick Four: Race #7

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

48 Bets, $24

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

$0.50 Pick Four: Race #9

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

50 Bets, $25

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

$0.50 Pick Four: Race #7

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

24 Bets, $12

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

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

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

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

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

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

$0.50 Pick Four: Race #6

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

80 Bets, $40

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

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

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

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

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

Analysis, Selections, and Tickets: Santa Anita Opening Day (12/26/18)

Greetings from 35,000 feet! I’m typing this from my flight back west, and the six-hour duration has left me plenty of time to analyze Wednesday’s Opening Day festivities at Santa Anita.

It’s a season of change at The Great Race Place. There’s a new announcer, a new racing secretary, and the lawsuit involving several members of the Stronach family looms large. Having said that, the Opening Day card is an excellent one that boasts plenty of wagering opportunities. I’ve got a pair of Pick Four tickets, and I think the large field sizes could ensure sizable payouts even if heavy favorites win a leg or two.

$0.50 Pick Four: Race #2

R2: 2,3,5,6
R3: 7
R4: 3,7
R5: 1,6,8,9,10

40 Bets, $20

I wanted to put together an early Pick Five ticket. Having said that, I found the opener to be completely impossible, and from a betting standpoint, I want no part of it.

I’ll focus on the early Pick Four, which starts in the second. This is a claiming event for 3-year-old fillies, and I’m going four-deep to start. Of the three horses likely to take money, I most prefer #5 CHATTY, who takes a big drop in class and has shown an ability to rate a bit (which could come in handy in a race with lots of speed signed on). However, I also need to use #2 EMPRESS OF LUV, who improved in her first start for new trainer Andrew Lerner. Her form looks considerably better if you toss her Del Mar races, and I think 12-1 is a sizable overlay.

I can’t, however, get as cute in the third. This is a starter allowance, and I really like #7 I AM THE DANGER, who has not run a bad race since being claimed by Doug O’Neill earlier this year. This doesn’t seem like the strongest race for the level, and a repeat of the two-back race against similar foes would make him pretty tough to beat. He’s the 5/2 morning line favorite, and I’ll happily place a win bet if he’s that price come post time.

The fourth is the Lady of Shamrock Stakes for fillies going a mile on the grass. I’m going against morning line favorite #1 AMANDINE, who will likely take a lot of money based on her lone American start. She was impressive, but that race fell apart, and I don’t think she’ll get a similar setup. Instead, I’ll take the 2-3 finishers from October’s Grade 3 Autumn Miss, #3 MS BAD BEHAVIOR and #7 STREAK OF LUCK. I’m a believer in that race, and both fillies seem to be in career-best form.

Many may single #9 SCALPER in the fifth. He fetched $850,000 at auction earlier this year and has been working very well for Bob Baffert, and if he’s 7/2 come post time, I’ll eat your hat. Having said that, this seems like a solid group, and I need security in case he needs a race. Of the ones that have run before, I prefer #6 MO MISSISSIPPI, who seems in line to take a step forward for a trainer whose horses often need a race to get going. However, #8 ALLEVA cuts back from a route to a sprint, which is often very useful in a race with many first-time starters. 12-1 seems like too big a price, and in a race with a bunch of horses that haven’t run before, I need to have him on my ticket.

$0.50 Pick Four: Race #7

R7: 5
R8: 2,3,7
R9: 3,9,12,13
R10: 1,4,5,6,10,11

72 Bets, $36

If you want to make this a Pick Five and single #5 DREAM TREE in the sixth (the Grade 1 La Brea), go right ahead. Personally, I don’t like the late Pick Five due to the increased takeout rate when compared to the early wager, and starting with back-to-back singles makes me a little nervous.

Instead, I’ll play a Pick Four, which is likely to draw a substantial pool. The seventh is the Grade 2 Mathis Brothers Mile, and I find it very hard to go against #5 RIVER BOYNE. He’s never lost at Santa Anita, and was a half-length away from becoming a Grade 1 winner in the Hollywood Derby at Del Mar. There’s plenty of speed to set up for his late kick, and his usual effort would beat these.

The eighth is the Grade 2 San Antonio, and despite a dearth of talent in the handicap division at this point in the year, this wound up being a very interesting race. #2 BATTLE OF MIDWAY and #3 DABSTER battled each other for nine furlongs in the Grade 3 Native Diver, and I need to use them both. However, I’m also using SoCal newcomer #7 GIFT BOX, who’s been working lights-out of late for trainer John Sadler. There’s a chance he’s best going one turn, but he should benefit from the early pace scenario, and if he runs to the work tab, he may be the one they have to hold off turning for home.

The ninth is the Grade 1 Malibu, and there’s a chance #13 MCKINZIE is simply better than his competition in here. I’m using him, but in the event he misfires on the cutback in distance, I’ve got plenty of coverage. I’ve always been a fan of #3 COPPER BULLET, and I was happy to see him come back running last month at Churchill Downs. This seems like the perfect spot for him, as well as the other two horses I have on my ticket. #9 AX MAN looked like a world-beater at times earlier this year and may be rounding back into form, while #12 KANTHAKA has never lost going seven furlongs and fired a recent bullet here at Santa Anita.

I’m six-deep in the finale, and I’m honestly not sure if that’s deep enough. #4 ACKER has won two in a row and may be in career-best form, but he’s no cinch. In fact, I think #5 TROJAN SPIRIT had a legitimate excuse when second to Acker last time out after a rough start. My six-horse spread also includes two big prices. #10 ICY STREET and #11 TAKI’S CHOICE have run competitive races on figures in the past, and I’m most interested in the latter. I think he needed the race last time out after a very long layoff, and trainer Phil D’Amato’s numbers with similar stock are strong. If we’re alive and he wins, it could make for a tidy score.

Can Horse Racing Grow Without Passionate People?

Over the past 30 years, your fearless scribe has come to one unmistakable conclusion: I’m cursed.

It’s a curse that probably doesn’t sound like a heavy burden, but it’s one I’ve had to deal with all my life. You see, my mind doesn’t stop. When I get stressed, or frustrated, or whatever the case may be, I see things in weird ways and use the written word as a way to cope.

Sometimes, this works. At least one executive at The Saratogian wanted my written weekly column gone in late-2012, and it took a convergence of two bizarre happenings to save it. The first came when former Kansas City Chiefs linebacker Jovan Belcher committed a series of unspeakable acts, and his one-time teammate at the University of Maine, fellow Kingston High School graduate Andrew Downey (to whom I still owe a debt I cannot repay), agreed to talk to me. The second came when my grandfather passed away and I wrote one of the things I’m most proud of (I’d link to it, but The Saratogian changed website providers several years ago and lots of content was lost).

Sometimes, though, it doesn’t work. At least one track probably still has a bounty on my head for something I wrote for Horse Racing Nation in 2014, and I know for a fact several industry heavyweights have taken plenty of exception to things I’ve said and/or done. What I’m writing now is probably going to go in the latter pile, but this is an issue I feel incredibly strongly about, and one that I’ll always fight for.

It’s been a tough month or so for a lot of people in the horse racing industry. The genesis of this column came after a visit to Los Angeles last week, where a lot of people (including several of much higher status in the racing business than yours truly) came together to say goodbye to Lou Villasenor. Lou was one of the most visible front-side employees at Santa Anita for three decades. He worked for both HRTV and Santa Anita’s simulcast department, and he was one of the good guys. As Kurt Hoover said in a post-funeral gathering, if you had a problem with Lou, something was wrong with you.

Lou was a sweet, kind, passionate man who loved what he did and was loved by the people he worked with. If everyone in racing attacked what they did for a living with the zest and vigor that Lou did, the industry would be a much better place.

The problem is, it seems as though we’ve decided that people with this sort of passion are expendable.

Before I go any further, I need to point out that this isn’t about me. As many of you know, my position with DRF was transitioned to part-time in September, and I left that position in November. However, what I’m writing is much more about what others in the industry have had to go through over the last few weeks.

Michael Wrona’s abrupt dismissal from his post at Santa Anita came as a shock to the horse racing world. He won an unconventional contest for the job in 2016 following the semi-retirement of Trevor Denman, and over the past two and a half years, he called races in Arcadia with professionalism, flair, and enthusiasm.

I count new Santa Anita announcer Frank Mirahmadi as a friend. Whether Frank knows it or not, he did a lot for me during a brief time where we were both employed by TVG, and I’ll always be grateful to him for that. Santa Anita is his dream job, and I know he’ll do great work (as he has in each of his prior career stops). However, I feel terrible for Wrona, who, by all indications, was completely blindsided by Santa Anita’s decision to not renew his contract.

(By the way, if you want an example of how classy Wrona is, here’s one: Last Wednesday, during what had to be one of the worst weeks of his life, he suited up and went to Lou’s funeral. Michael Wrona doesn’t know me, nor does he have any reason to be reading this, but that was a first-class move from a man whose character has been vouched for by many others elsewhere.)

Unfortunately, that wasn’t the only rough news from Santa Anita. When Wrona was dismissed, word leaked out that several members of XBTV’s production staff were also shown the door. This included several former HRTV colleagues of mine, such as Aaron Vercruysse, Richard Migliore, and Michael Canale (among others). Additionally, following news that several of Santa Anita’s graded stakes races were downgraded, longtime racing secretary Rick Hammerle (who trainer Bob Baffert gave the utmost credit to for filling the allowance race Justify won prior to the Santa Anita Derby) was let go as well.

They’re all fantastic, talented people, and they’re too gifted to be unemployed for very long if they don’t want to be. Furthermore, none of them need me to vouch for any of that, and I’m sure at least one of them wishes I hadn’t (sorry, guys; it’s my website, and I like each of you very much!).

The reason I’m writing about this now, though, is pretty simple: In a time where horse racing needs to be focused on creating passionate fans in order to ensure the sport’s continued survival, why is it that we’re making a habit of kicking out passionate employees?

This isn’t solely a Santa Anita issue. As racing has slowly dwindled in popularity, no circuit or outlet has been immune from this trend. The folks from Thoroughbred Times have horror stories about the publication’s shutdown in 2012 (and the lean years that preceded it). TVG had a highly publicized round of layoffs in 2011, and had a less public round in 2017. Analyst Jason Blewitt, whose work very few have ever criticized, was let go from NYRA for reasons that remain unclear (though, thankfully, he’s since latched on at Gulfstream Park).

In order for handle and revenue to grow, the gambling side of racing needs to be marketed by smart, savvy gamblers that can convey what they know to a public that’s eager to learn. Forgive me, but this doesn’t strike me as a complex concept. Beer festivals, food trucks, and the like are nice (and one could argue that they drive attendance and look great on social media), but those don’t teach anything that would make good players out of mediocre players or indulge the curiosities of someone making his or her first trip to the track.

I’ve learned a lot over the past three months about doing what you genuinely love to do. I’m passionate about communicating facts and opinions about this great game, and having a full-time job allows me to keep my hand in some aspects of it. Similarly, I have no doubt that the people looking for work will be more than fine in the long run, and that they’ll be back doing what they’re excellent at in short order.

Unfortunately, this is a worrisome trend. While racing (like anything else) is a business, complete with profit/loss margins that must be met, it seems counterintuitive to not invest in passionate people that can help a racing company grow. We need those people in the game, because if they’re put in the right spots, they’ll create more people like them that will contribute to its growth. Maybe that isn’t a fan base that plays well on social media, but it’s a fan base horse racing cannot survive without.

(Rest in peace, Lou. We miss you.)

CHAMPAGNE’S CAMPAIGNS: Unique Bella, The Pursuit of Greatness, And Rushing to Judgement

I’ve had my share of very unpopular opinions. I’m the guy that’s gotten hate mail from a Kentucky Derby-winning owner for having the gall to question the quality of Breeders’ Cup fields in 2012 (in my defense, my hypothesis was that most of the fields were bad, and history shows most of them were subpar when compared to previous and more recent renewals). I cashed when Zenyatta got beat, gleefully dashing to the windows to cash my Dangerous Midge-Blame double as an overwhelming majority of fans sobbed while stomping out the front door of the Saratoga harness track. Furthermore, if equine wunderkind Justify loses next weekend, there’s a chance I win big (for more on that, click here).

All of this serves as a lead-up to what I’m sure will be a hypothesis that goes over like a lead balloon. That thought: Unique Bella is nowhere near as good as many fans want her to be.

As I publish this, we’re less than 12 hours away from Unique Bella’s run in the Grade 1 Beholder Mile. She’ll be a heavy favorite over Grade 1 winners Paradise Woods and Vale Dori, and her presence has created a palpable buzz, even with much of the racing world waiting with baited breath for Justify to try a mile and a half. For this, Unique Bella and her connections must be commended. Racing needs stars, and it needs them to run as often as possible. Given her massive residual value as a broodmare, her connections could have easily retired her following her win in the Grade 1 La Brea, which was enough to earn her an Eclipse Award as the nation’s top female sprinter. They didn’t, and we as racing fans will benefit from her continued presence on the track.

That presence, by the way, is one of the reasons she’s so easy to like. If horse racing had central casting, she’d be what the agents would create. She’s a huge gray filly with a gigantic stride and an even bigger motor, which she puts on display during her ever-popular workout videos. Seeing Unique Bella on a racetrack is akin to seeing Hulk Hogan in his red and yellow, or seeing Jimi Hendrix tune up a Fender with those oversized fingers of his. It’s clear from the moment one first lays eyes on Unique Bella that she has a star quality about her many thoroughbreds simply do not have.

Here’s the thing, though. Take all of the workout videos, all of the flash, all of the fire-breathing schooling sessions, and all of the “possibly better than Songbird” buzz away, and what do you have? You have a filly that’s won a grand total of one Grade 1 race. You have a filly that got positively stomped in her lone Breeders’ Cup try. You have a filly that, yes, won an Eclipse Award, but did so in a division that was so weak by year’s end that there were few other plausible alternatives, and one that only locked up that award with a win in a race restricted to 3-year-old fillies.

As the great football coach Bill Parcells has said, you are what your record says you are. The record says Unique Bella is a very, very good horse, but nowhere near a great one yet. Don’t believe me? Let’s use a blind test against a number of other recent distaffers. This proved efficient in my piece analyzing Gio Ponti’s Hall of Fame credentials, and I’m hoping it serves its purpose once again. By doing this, we’ll test Unique Bella’s record using nuts-and-bolts data and see how she matches up.

Unique Bella
Career Record: 10-7-2-0
Earnings: $852,400
Graded Stakes Wins (Grade 1 Wins): Six (One)
Breeders’ Cup Wins (Appearances): None (One)

Horse A
Career Record: 15-13-2-0
Earnings: $4,692,000
Graded Stakes Wins (Grade 1 Wins): 12 (Nine)
Breeders’ Cup Wins (Appearances): One (Two)

Horse B
Career Record: 22-12-5-1
Earnings: $4,811,126
Graded Stakes Wins (Grade 1 Wins): 10 (Six)
Breeders’ Cup Wins (Appearances): Two (Three)

Horse C
Career Record: 8-5-1-1
Earnings: $904,980
Graded Stakes Wins (Grade 1 Wins): Three (Two)
Breeders’ Cup Wins (Appearances): None (One)

Horse D
Career Record: 16-10-3-0
Earnings: $803,068
Graded Stakes Wins (Grade 1 Wins): Four (One)
Breeders’ Cup Wins (Appearances): None (One)

If you’re a hardcore horse racing fan, you can probably guess who Horse A is. That’s Songbird. Some say it’d be unfair to compare Unique Bella to Songbird, but people were doing it before Unique Bella even ran, so this is the price that must be paid. Songbird is a no-doubt-about-it Hall of Famer when she appears on a ballot, and for as talented as Unique Bella is, she’s got a lot of going to do to match her former stablemate in the Jerry Hollendorfer barn.

Horse B is another that’s probably easy to figure out. That’s Royal Delta, whose career record looks much better if you toss her expeditions to Dubai in 2012 and 2013. When she was on her game, few were better, and she’s another that should be enshrined in Saratoga Springs sooner rather than later. Songbird and Royal Delta are what Hall of Fame mares look like. Remember this, as we’ll revisit this bar later.

Horses C and D may be a bit tougher to figure out. Horse C is, for my money, one of the most underrated horses in training right now. That’s American Gal, whose lone one-turn loss came off an eight-month layoff in this year’s Grade 1 Madison at Keeneland. Her win in the Grade 1 Test last year was explosive, and she was also impressive in winning the Grade 1 Humana Distaff last month at Churchill Downs. I genuinely believed she was the best female sprinter in the country last year when she was healthy, but I could not vote for her based on her limited body of work (I instead chose to abstain, feeling that none of the candidates did enough to merit an Eclipse). American Gal has twice as many Grade 1 wins as Unique Bella, along with higher career earnings in two less starts and one less egg-laying Breeders’ Cup performance (she was third in the 2016 Juvenile Fillies). If Unique Bella is getting the equivalent of ticker-tape parades thrown every time she breezes, where’s the love for a horse that, on paper, has accomplished more when it matters?

Horse D is another current runner, one that got her Grade 1 win earlier this year. That’s Madison winner Finley’sluckycharm. On paper, Unique Bella outshines her, but it’s not by nearly as much as you’d think, and this serves to underscore my point. We want Unique Bella to be a great horse. Some of us have tricked ourselves into thinking she’s there already. The numbers don’t say that she is.

Like any racing contrarian, deep down, a large part of me wants to be wrong. Racing needs stars in a bad way, especially if Justify retires after the Belmont Stakes (solely a hypothetical, folks; don’t get it twisted or think I have insider knowledge, because I don’t) and we’re left with a Breeders’ Cup Classic that’s, to be kind, less than marketable.

I hope Unique Bella comes out of the starting gate like a bat out of hell. I want her to channel Dr. Fager and lay down splits that grind her rivals into dust. I want her to come home with her ears pricked and Mike Smith praying he never has to choose between his latest brilliant filly and the 3-year-old that could win the Triple Crown next weekend. If she wins in 1:33 and change, and microphones pick up Smith begging Hollendorfer to keep her with fillies and mares, I’ll consider that a win for horse racing, one that it could really use.

There’s a scenario where Unique Bella wins the Beholder, the Clement Hirsch, and the Zenyatta en route to another try at Breeders’ Cup glory. Those are all Grade 1 races, and those would provide the substance her resume lacks right now. Running the table en route to the Distaff and capping the season off with a win at Churchill Downs would put her on the level of some of the great fillies and mares we’ve seen lately, as well as separate her from some of her present-day competitors that, in all actuality, she hasn’t done enough to distance herself from yet.

At that point, I’ll happily anoint Unique Bella as a superstar. To reiterate a point made by a two-time Super Bowl-winning coach, though, you are what your record says you are. Unique Bella’s record says she’s simply not there yet.