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.

Analysis, Selections, and Tickets: May 26th, 2018 (Belmont, Santa Anita, Monmouth)

We’ve got two weeks left to go until Justify attempts to become horse racing’s 13th Triple Crown winner. However, there’s plenty of good racing coming up Saturday. Santa Anita’s slate is headlined by a pair of Grade 1 races, Belmont Park has an appealing 10-race card, and Monmouth Park boasts 13 events (four of which are stakes). There’s a lot to cover, so let’s get to it!

BELMONT PARK

$0.50 Pick Five: Race #1

R1: 2,5
R2: ALL
R3: 5,6,7
R4: 3
R5: 6,7

60 Bets, $30

We start off the card with a maiden claimer, and this strikes me as a two-horse race. #2 PLAYWRIGHT and #5 RUMBLES OF THUNDER will take most of the money, and I can’t find any other alternatives in this field.

The second leg, though, is completely wide-open despite boasting just a field of five horses. #5 CLASSIC COVEY may be favored, but he’s winless in his last four outings and could be a bounce candidate off a lifetime-best effort when third in the Grade 2 Pan American. I’m hitting the ALL button and hoping for a bit of chaos.

I almost completely went against the 4/5 morning line favorite in the third race. That’s #5 RIDE ON FAITH, who’s 0-for-12 and goes out for the ice-cold Nick Zito barn. Ultimately, though, I opted to use the horse defensively since I had room in my budget to do so. I most prefer #6 GIO LUCKY and #7 CURLIN’S NEW MOON. Both take class drops to run here, and I think that could wake them up.

My single will likely be a popular one. That’s #3 CHARNLEY RIVER, who’s 8/5 on the morning line and could go off shorter than that in the fourth. He aired when entered for a tag two back before being burned out on the front end against much better last time out. I think he’ll be very tough to beat if he fires his best shot.

We finish similar to how we started. I think the fifth is a two-horse race between the two likely favorites. In this case, those horses are class-dropper #6 POLAR CITY and #7 FLATEXCEL, who just missed at this level last time out and looks much better if you toss the three off-track races. I prefer the latter, who’s a bit more of a price, but using both seems most prudent here for the sake of coverage on the end.

$0.50 Pick Four: Race #7

R7: 1,3,5,8,11,12,13
R8: 3,7
R9: 3,5,6
R10: 4,6

84 Bets, $42

Full disclosure: This ticket likely will not cost $42. #13 WAY SMART is an also-eligible in the first leg, and he may not run. If all seven horses I’m using in the seventh run, it’s a $42 wager, but each scratch brings the ticket down six dollars.

That event, as you can imply, struck me as the most wide-open of the sequence. It’s a turf sprint for state-breds, and I thought many in here had big shots to run well. #8 MENTALITY may be favored given her back class, but she’s dropped four races in a row and is no cinch. The longshot of the bunch I used is #3 MISS MYSTIQUE, who’s 20-1 on the morning line. She’s stakes-placed on dirt, so there’s some talent there, and with Johannesburg on the top of her pedigree and Malibu Moon on the bottom, there’s potential for her to like the grass. I needed her on the ticket, especially in a race where there don’t seem to be any monsters signed on.

I was tempted to single #3 BIG GUY IAN in the second leg, a $16,000 claimer. He seems like the main speed in here, but he’s also burned some money of late and is 0-for-5 at Belmont Park. With all of that in mind, I also had to use #7 CERRO, a hard-knocking veteran dropping in class for aggressive connections. It seems like he detested Aqueduct, as his last two starts were too bad to be true. I think there’s a chance he wakes up here, and those two clunkers could mean he does so at an overlaid price.

The third leg is the feature, the Paradise Creek Stakes for 3-year-olds going seven furlongs on turf. #5 GIDU will likely be favored, and his best race probably wins this, but this is a prep race for Royal Ascot, not the goal. With that in mind, I’ll also throw in #3 CURLIN’S HONOR, who’s perfect aside from a misfire in the Grade 2 Rebel, and #6 AMBASSADOR JIM, who may be the lone closer in a race with lots of early speed.

We finish with, to be blunt, a real mess of a race. It’s a maiden claimer for turf sprinters, and I went two-deep. #4 WILD WILLIAM is a first-time starter with solid breeding that catches a weak field, while #6 CAUSFORCELEBRATION just missed last time out at this level in his first start off the bench. I can’t get past those two, and I need to keep the cost of my ticket down anyway.

SANTA ANITA

$0.50 Pick Five: Race #1

R1: 3,4,5
R2: 6
R3: 1,5,6
R4: 4,5
R5: 2,4,5

54 Bets, $27

This is an interesting Pick Five sequence. The field sizes won’t knock your socks off or anything, but these are five intriguing betting races with very little in the way of prohibitive favorites. With that in mind, we could conceivably hit this for a nice score without having any true bombs on the ticket.

I’ll start off by going three-deep in the opener, a $35,000 claimer on the grass. #3 SPITFIRE has run well twice at this level, and if you toss the career debut, he’s yet to run a bad race on turf. I’m also using #4 SWINGING STAR, who gets Rafael Bejarano off a win over lesser company, and #5 DEFIANTLY, who had an adventurous trip when favored last time out.

We have to single somewhere, and the horse I landed on is the 5/2 favorite in the second race. That’s #6 ISEE IT IN HISEYES, who came back running off the bench last time out to be an OK third against similar company. The blinkers come on, and I think he’ll love cutting back to 5 1/2 furlongs after tiring a bit going a furlong further than that last time out. If he’s allowed to dictate terms early, he may be tough late.

If you’ve got a bigger budget and want to buy the third race, that could be smart. It’s a field of six, and I think most of the horses in here look live. I settled on going three-deep, and I’m eager to see how #5 QUEEN LAILA responds following the claim by David Jacobson last time out.

I’m only two-deep in the fourth, which drew a full field of 10 maidens to go long on the turf. My top selection is #4 JAZAALAH, who I think will relish the cutback to a mile. I’ll also defensively use 3-1 morning line favorite #5 ROCKIN READY, who’s been second three straight times and could be approaching now-or-never status.

We finish off the sequence with the Grade 1 Gold Cup at Santa Anita. Three horses appear to be head and shoulders above the rest here, and I’m using all of them. #2 ACCELERATE, #4 CITY OF LIGHT, and #5 DR. DORR seem best of this bunch, and because I’m fairly thin elsewhere, I can afford to use them all here.

$0.50 Pick Four: Race #6

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

32 Bets, $16

This is the first of two sequences in a row where I’ve constructed a cheaper ticket because I don’t think it’ll pay much. With that in mind, my single is my best bet of the day, and if we can extract ANY value from it, I’ll be pretty happy.

That’s #6 ITSINTHEPOST, who’s 6/5 in the Grade 2 Charles Whittingham. Simply put, this is the same bunch of horses this gelding has been beating up on for a while now, and I can’t see a reason for any of them to turn the tables here. He’ll likely be odds-on, and he should be, as it would take a significant form reversal for someone to beat him.

The second leg will also feature a heavy favorite, but I can’t single him. That’s #7 BABY GRONK, who disappointed at 1/2 last time out. I’m using him, but I also need to throw in #2 FASHIONABLY FAST, who was vanned off following his most recent race on March 10th. It’s safe to assume something went wrong that day, so I’m tossing it out and going off of his debut effort, which was pretty sharp. If he runs back to that race, I think he’s got a big chance.

Going fairly narrow early allows me to spread late. I’m four-deep in the Grade 1 Gamely, where several horses I’m using likely need a fast pace. If one materializes, #1 MADAM DANCEALOT and #6 BEAU RECALL figure to be tough. If it doesn’t, #7 HAWKSMOOR and #8 MADAME STRIPES may have something left late.

We end the card with a maiden claiming event, and this may be the best betting race on the card. #7 IT’S A NEW YEAR is the 7/2 morning line choice, but he may be best going two turns, not one. I’ll use him, but I also need to use several other logical horses, ones that could be significantly bigger prices.

MONMOUTH PARK

$0.50 Pick Five: Race #9

R9: 4
R10: 2,3,4,5,8,10
R11: 2,3
R12: 2,3,7
R13: 6

36 Bets, $18

Monmouth has a $100,000 bonus to be paid out if this wager is hit by a single winning ticket. Having said that, I’m not holding my breath on only one person cashing out. It looks pretty chalky, but the good news is that I think you can play a ticket for a very reasonable price. If we can get singles home on each end and beat favorites between them, we could be looking at a nice score.

The first race of the sequence is the John J. Reilly for New Jersey-breds. I’m very hesitant to criticize morning line makers, and Monmouth’s line is usually very strong, but this one seems off. #4 CHUBLICIOUS has thumped many of these rivals in the past and returns to his favorite surface after a few productive starts at Fair Grounds. If he runs back to his form from last year’s event, he’s going to be very tough to beat. He’s 5/2 on the morning line, but I think he’ll be 6/5 or 7/5 when the gates are sprung, and if he’s higher than that, I’ll need to have a straight win bet, too.

The second leg, the Boiling Springs, is much more difficult. If you’ve got deeper pockets and want to hit the “ALL” button, I get it (that would make my suggested ticket $30 instead of $18). I simply wanted to keep the cost of my ticket down, which meant tossing four of the 10 runners in the field. I’m still using the logical horses in here, so as long as nothing crazy happens, we’ve got a really good chance of advancing without buying the race.

The third leg is the Grade 3 Salvator Mile, and I was able to narrow this down to two horses. My top pick is #2 SHAFT OF LIGHT, who seems like the main speed in here. I think he’s faster than #4 CHIP LEADER (who I don’t like at all after a perfect-trip defeat in the Ben Ali), and he should be able to dictate terms early. I also need to use #3 SUNNY RIDGE, who always runs well here and has kept strong company throughout his career.

The fourth leg is the Grade 2 Monmouth, and as usual, Chad Brown holds a strong hand in this turf race. #2 PROJECTED and #3 MONEY MULTIPLIER can both win, but my top pick is #7 FROSTMOURNE, who exits the Grade 1 Makers 46 Mile at Keeneland. He probably wants a bit further than that, and he gets an additional furlong here. We may get a fair price given Brown’s 1-2 punch, and if he wins, it could spice up the eventual payout.

If we’re alive going into the Saturday finale, we’ll ride or die with #6 DISRUPTOR, who seems like the lone early speed horse in this $7,500 claimer. He won’t be a price (2-1 ML), but his last two races at Gulfstream were sharp in relation to what he’ll face here, and if he gets a comfortable lead going into the far turn, I think he’ll be tough to catch late.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

AQUEDUCT

$0.50 Pick Four: Race #8

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

42 Bets, $21

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

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

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

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

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

KEENELAND

$0.50 Pick Four: Race #7

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

90 Bets, $45

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

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

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

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

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

SANTA ANITA

$0.50 Pick Four: Race #9

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

60 Bets, $30

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

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

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

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

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