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.

The Big ‘Cap’s Big Problem

One of the most prestigious races in the country will be run this weekend. A list of the race’s winners over the years boasts Hall of Famers, champions, and some of the best horses of their respective eras, not to mention legendary owners, trainers, and jockeys.

Yes, the Santa Anita Handicap will be run Saturday in Arcadia. However, the Big ‘Cap isn’t quite so big anymore, in stature, prominence, or in the quality of horses it attracts.

The reasons for this abound, and perhaps the most reasonable one is the proximity of the race to the Dubai World Cup. Why run for the winner’s share of a $600,000 pot when you can run for the biggest piece of a $10 million pie? With the three-week gap between the two races, trainers of yesteryear may have openly tried to run in both. As we all know, though, they don’t make many horses physically capable of that anymore.

Gun Runner has already started his second career, covering mares at $70,000 a pop. West Coast, the best of a forgettable lot of 3-year-olds in 2017 but a 4-year-old that at least made Gun Runner work in the Pegasus, has his eye on Dubai, as does last year’s champion older dirt mare, Forever Unbridled. The winners of the 2017 Triple Crown races are still working their way back, as is champion 3-year-old filly Abel Tasman.

This paints a horrifyingly bleak picture of the older horse divisions, and the field for the 2018 Santa Anita Handicap reflects it. Past performances show a field of eight that could be whittled down to seven if Giant Expectations opts to instead run in the Roy H-less Grade 1 Triple Bend. This octet has combined for a total of three Grade 1 wins. Hoppertunity has won a pair, while Mubtaahij won a similarly watered-down renewal of the Awesome Again last fall.

There are plenty of nice horses in this race. Three-time Grade 2 winner Accelerate, Pegasus World Cup fourth-place finisher Fear the Cowboy, and millionaire Giant Expectations are thoroughbreds any owner or trainer would love to have. They’re honest, hard-trying equines…but, to this point, they’re not Grade 1 horses, and of the two in the field that have achieved that status, one has won once in his last seven starts (Hoppertunity), and the other (Mubtaahij) has one win since the spring of 2015.

In my estimation, the Big ‘Cap isn’t even the main event of Big ‘Cap Day. That honor falls to the San Felipe Stakes, a prep for the Santa Anita Derby that has drawn some of the top 3-year-olds in the country. Bolt d’Oro makes his seasonal debut there, and he’ll face the undefeated McKinzie, impressive San Vicente winner Kanthaka, and wire-to-wire Robert Lewis victor Lombo, among others, with a total of 85 Kentucky Derby points on the line. Now THAT is a race with some pizzazz to it, one where you could talk to a novice horse racing fan and explain why it’s important without sounding like a marketing executive obviously stretching the bounds of rationality and logic.

The Santa Anita Handicap? This year’s renewal is a step down from even the most recent runnings, which were far from star-studded but did have some appealing aspects to them. 2017 had Shaman Ghost, who put together a nice string of performances before being sidelined last summer with ailments that ultimately led to his retirement. Melatonin at least franked the form he showed in his 2016 upset when he added the Grade 1 Gold Cup, and Shared Belief dazzled us with one of his finest efforts when taking the 2015 version. Before that, Game On Dude won three Big ‘Caps in four years, including the 2014 running over Breeders’ Cup Classic winner Mucho Macho Man and reigning champion 3-year-old Will Take Charge (it’s worth noting that this was the final year where Meydan ran the Dubai World Cup on a synthetic surface).

Something has to be done to restore this great race’s glory. It cannot succeed going up against the Dubai World Cup in a world where the best horses MAY run six or seven times a year for the biggest purses available. Here’s how I’d do it.

1) Move the race to the second Saturday in May, and restore its purse to $1 million.

The current timing of the Santa Anita Handicap clearly does not work. It’s not attracting the best horses in the country, as they’re busy preparing for excursions to a desert halfway across the world. Before we do anything else, we need to move it, and May is the best spot.

If nothing else, this gives the Big ‘Cap a weekend all to itself between the Kentucky Derby and Preakness. General interest in racing is at its peak at this point, and this also at least opens the door for horses returning from Dubai to consider running. Everything would need to go perfectly, but it’s at least a consideration, especially given further suggestions I have.

Also, before we go further, let’s treat the Big ‘Cap like it matters and give it the $1 million purse it deserves. If this means axing the Pimlico Special (normally run the next week on Preakness weekend in Maryland) to balance the budget and get more top-class runners in one spot, so be it. It sounds really cold (especially to at least one Maryland racing fan I know that’s probably reading this), but I’d rather kill a Grade 3 than a Grade 1, which is what we’re doing by doing nothing with the Santa Anita Handicap.

2) Move the Gold Cup to closing weekend.

Given the moving of the Big ‘Cap, the Gold Cup at Santa Anita also needs to be rescheduled. It was run on Memorial Day last year, and that’s too quick a turnaround.

If this gets moved to closing weekend, it provides six or seven weeks between the two 10-furlong races. Horses could easily run in both races, and this race provides an even more realistic target for those looking to return from Dubai. One could also attract horses exiting either the Met Mile or Brooklyn on Belmont Day, as that wouldn’t be an unreasonable turnaround for aggressive barns. Furthermore, it represents an ideal spot for a top-class mare to try the boys. It’d be four or five weeks after Santa Anita’s flagship spring-summer race for older distaffers, the Beholder Mile, and that spacing could be ideal.

3) Establish a series culminating in the Pacific Classic, and award bonuses to the most successful horses.

What we’ve done with these two maneuvers is establish a logical, three-race series for California’s top handicap horses. Here, we have three races, each six to eight weeks apart, all at the classic distance of a mile and a quarter. It’s not anywhere close to as grueling as the Triple Crown, nor will it have the pop culture relevance if a horse wins the first two legs. However, there are ways to make this appeal to the masses in such a way that it could be a novel idea.

The simplest bonus would go to the connections of any horse that sweeps the series. My initial idea is $500,000, to be paid for by The Stronach Group (which owns Santa Anita) and Del Mar (which puts on the third leg). Furthermore, since Stronach is involved, let’s also throw in the right to buy a slot in the starting gate for the Pegasus World Cup at half-price (down from $1 million to $500,000). With the $500,000 cash bonus also in mind, this essentially turns the Pegasus into a freeroll for the owners and whatever breeder acquires the horse’s stallion rights. Money talks, and a free shot at the winner’s share of the Pegasus would be very attractive.

If no horse wins all three legs, we’d go to a scoring system. My proposal would be 10 points to the winners, with six points to the second-place horses, three points to the third-place horses, and one point to everyone else in each field (as a bone to entice barns into running their horses in all three legs, so as to keep the mathematical possibility of a win in the series alive). The winner of the series would be in line for a bonus, with the runners-up each getting smaller bonuses. For the sake of this conversation, let’s put the prizes at $100,000, $25,000, and $10,000. If you’ve got a hard-knocking horse in a year where one thoroughbred doesn’t take multiple legs of the series, two seconds and a third could easily get you some serious money, on top of the purse money your horse wins in those races.

Currently, the Big ‘Cap has little relevance to the national racing scene. It’s the byproduct of a previous era, and it’s my belief that, like they’ve done with several other staples of generations past, The Stronach Group needs to review the facts and do what it can to save a race that deserves so much better.

Analysis, Selections, and Tickets: Gulfstream Park, Santa Anita (2/24/18)

Now that my move from SoCal to NorCal is mostly complete, I’ve got some time to put pen to paper on some betting strategies for Saturday’s racing action. Gulfstream has a mammoth, 13-race card with three Pick Four sequences, while Santa Anita’s program is headlined by the return of Breeders’ Cup Turf Sprint winner Stormy Liberal in the Grade 3 Daytona. Here’s how I’ll be playing!

GULFSTREAM PARK

$0.50 Pick Four: Race #2

R2: 5
R3: 1,8
R4: ALL
R5: 1,3,9

48 Bets, $24

If I had to guess, I’d say that my opening single in the early Pick Four will likely be the shortest price on the card. That’s #5 KING POWER, who certainly seems like the main speed in this bottom-level claiming event. If he’s allowed to dictate terms on the front end, I think he’ll be very tough to beat, and singling him allows me to spread elsewhere at a fairly-low cost.

The third is a two-turn event on grass, and I almost singled here as well. #8 GRACE’S DRAMA makes her second start off a long layoff, and her return came against much better horses. She showed some speed in a starter allowance before fading in a race she clearly needed, and this seems like a much softer spot for a horse that should be ready to progress. I reluctantly included morning line choice #1 PLEIN AIR, simply because there’s a fair amount of speed signed on that could set things up for her late kick, but Grace’s Drama is my top pick.

I have no such convictions about the fourth, an optional claiming race on the lawn where there doesn’t appear to be a standout. #2 BINGO KITTEN is favored, and his race two back was very good, but his recent dud can’t be ignored, and the claiming tag he’s entered with could be a red flag. I’m buying the race and hoping we get a price home.

The payoff leg is a maiden claimer for female sprinters, and I’m three-deep. #1 Y’ALL’s lone dirt race came in a tough straight maiden event, and she was a respectable fourth. The runner-up has since come back to win, and she’s a legitimate favorite. I’ll also use #3 QUICKLUCKYCOCO, who adds blinkers and has shown some life since dropping to this level three back, and #9 SENZA TE, who returns off a long layoff for Wesley Ward and sports several sharp drills at Palm Meadows.

$0.50 Pick Four: Race #6

R6: 2,6
R7: 2,5,6,7
R8: 7,12,13
R9: 2,9

48 Bets, $24

I have no singles in this sequence, one that contains races with an average field size of 11 horses. If you hit, chances are you’ll get paid handsomely.

It starts with a minor stakes race, the Texas Glitter for turf sprinters. #2 BARBAROSSA has hinted at talent for Todd Pletcher and merits respect cutting back to one turn. I’ll use him, but I can’t ignore #6 REED KAN, whose lone turf race back in December was an excellent performance. That one seems like the main speed in here, and he could be the one they have to run down turning for home.

The seventh is a bottom-level claimer, and I found this race pretty tricky. I’m going against morning line choice #10 STARSHIP APOLLO, who’s on a four-race losing streak here and may prefer Gulfstream Park West. Additionally, while I used #5 MITOS Y LEYENDAS, 2-1 seems like a short price on a horse that hasn’t won since 2016. Of the four I’m using, the biggest price is #7 HORSE SPOTTER CARL, who won two back before getting off to a rough start last time out at this level. 15-1 seems like an overlay if you draw a line through that race.

I’m also going against the morning line choice in the eighth. That’s #9 FLIRTY, who takes a huge drop for high-profile connections after two misfires against straight maidens. I’ll try to beat her, and my top pick is #7 SOMEWHATOPTIMISTIC, who improved last time out in her second career start. She was beaten less than a length, and the top two finishers from that race have both come back to win. Further improvement in start number three would make her tough, and those 8-1 odds look juicy. I’ll also use second choice #12 TRUMP THAT and #13 SECOND ILLUSION, who missed the break in her debut but showed some life in rallying for third money.

The ninth is a turf route for older claimers, and it’s drawn a strong field for the level. I highly doubt we’ll get 5-1 on #9 RAY’S THE BAR, who was an impressive winner last time out on the drop in class. Jose Ortiz stays on, and I think he’ll probably be your post-time favorite. I’ll also throw in #2 MEGEVE, who ran two very good races two and three back before throwing in a clunker last time out. I can excuse that race, since he was marooned on the far outside with a short run into the first turn. He draws more favorably here in his first start for the strong David Fawkes outfit, and Luis Saez riding back is a plus.

$0.50 Pick Four: Race #10

R10: 1,5,7,13
R11: 4
R12: 1,2,3,6,8
R13: 1,7,9,12

80 Bets, $40

In order to play this ticket for a reasonable amount of money, you need to single somewhere. The question is, where do you do it? The bookends of the sequence feature a number of first-time starters that will take money, the Hal’s Hope seems competitive, and the second leg is a claiming event with many horses that look similar to one another. If you’re right in taking a stand, though, you could be in line for a windfall.

The 10th is a maiden event for 3-year-olds going seven furlongs, and pedigree folks ought to be chomping at the bit. #5 BAIL OUT is a half to several graded stakes winners, and #7 RULER OF THE NILE was a million-dollar purchase at last year’s OBS sale. I’ll use them both, while also throwing in second-time starter #1 KING ZACHARY (who ran into Principe Guilherme in his debut) and #13 ARK IN THE DARK (who’s been working well at Palm Meadows for Kelly Breen and draws a cushy outside post).

My stand comes in the 11th. I’m far from crazy about it, but if I’m right on #4 ZEFIRO, I’ve got plenty of coverage elsewhere to potentially get paid. He was claimed last time out by Robert Dibona, who has run a smaller barn with great success over the past few years. His strike rate first off the claim is excellent, and note the presence of Javier Castellano, who doesn’t ride for him very often.

I couldn’t take any sort of a stand in the Hal’s Hope, and if you can, more power to you. #1 IRISH WAR CRY makes his 2018 debut, but it’s not like he HAS to win this event, and his best races have come around two turns. I needed coverage here, and my top pick is #6 MALAGACY, who almost certainly needed the race last time out going six furlongs. He didn’t run terribly that day, and he should be much more fit in this spot.

We finish with a real puzzler in the form of a maiden race for 3-year-olds going a mile on turf. #7 RHODE ISLAND and #9 VEGAS KITTEN are both first-time starters that will take money. I’ve used them both, but I much prefer two horses with experience, and one of them is a crazy price. #12 ROSE’S VISION will have to work out a trip, but he’s got plenty of turf form from last year and needed the race last time out. He could go off favored, and he’d be far from shocking. My big price is #1 TOP SECRET INDY, who debuted going a mile and was eased. However, Bill Mott’s horses usually need a race to get going, and the 316 turf Tomlinson number indicates he could relish the lawn. His second dam, Winendynme, was a multiple stakes winner on turf, and for all of these reasons, it wouldn’t be stunning if he took a major step forward in this spot. I have to use him, especially given his 20-1 morning line price.

SANTA ANITA

$0.50 Pick Four: Race #2

R2: 2
R3: 2,3,5,6
R4: 4,5,6,7
R5: 4,8

32 Bets, $16

Of the five sequences I’ve dissected, this is the one where I’m least optimistic about a huge payoff. It seems chalky on paper, especially if the likely favorite wins the feature, but maybe there’s a way we can extract some value.

I’m singling #2 GIFT OF A STAR in the second, a $16,000 claiming event. She comes back to dirt and drops in class, and her recent form looks much better if you cross out the turf races. This isn’t a stellar group, and this one’s usual dirt race should be good enough to beat this bunch.

I’m four-deep in both the second and third legs. The second leg is a sprint, and while I’m using likely favorite #5 HERE AND THERE and possible second choice #6 CLASSICO, I’m also going to throw in a few prices. #2 BEAR SKINNED drops in class a bit and has some competitive back form, while #3 CHROMIUM was claimed last time out following an uncharacteristic dud.

The fourth race is the Grade 3 Daytona, and it features the return of #7 STORMY LIBERAL. Trainer Peter Miller, though, saddles two others in here, and that makes me a bit apprehensive about the likely favorite’s chances. I’m using the other two Miller charges, as well as #6 PERFECTLY MAJESTIC, who could get an ideal setup rating off a hot pace beneath Kent Desormeaux.

The payoff leg features another possibly-heavy favorite. That’s #4 MONDAYMORNINGBLUES, who drops in for a tag for the first time. It wouldn’t be shocking if she won, but I also need to use #8 ALLIE’S LOVE, who’s been competitive at this level in two straight starts and draws a nice outside post. Whichever one of those two makes the lead should be tough to run down late.

$0.50 Pick Four: Race #7

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

42 Bets, $21

By contrast to the early Pick Four, the late Pick Four could pay pretty well, even if shorter-priced horses find the winner’s circle. The fields are large, and that bodes well for the potential payoff.

We start with the seventh, and I needed to spread in this two-turn turf route. I almost punched the “ALL” button, but was at least able to whittle it down to seven horses in this 12-horse group. If you’ve got deeper pockets, buying the race may not be a bad idea, as it’s tough to separate this bunch.

The eighth is a maiden special weight event for older fillies and mares. #2 GET YOURSELF HOME is the morning line choice, but the relative lack of early speed she’s shown is a bit problematic. I used her, but I’m more focused on #5 ZILLINDA and #10 KARMIC AFFINITY. Those two have significantly more early speed, and, to me, they seem more logical.

I’m two-deep in the ninth, a classy optional claimer. #7 LIFE’S BLESSINGS will be a popular single, but I have to go deeper than just her. #5 POWDER got very good last fall, winning three in a row before a failed turf experiment. She’s working well ahead of her 2018 debut, and, on figures, she’s right with the likely favorite.

My single comes in the Saturday finale, the Wishing Well Stakes. #4 BENDABLE made her downhill debut last time out in the Grade 3 Las Cienegas and ran well, finishing second behind a classy mare. This seems like a softer spot, and she should be ready to take a step forward second off the bench. While I think she’s imposing, and while she’ll likely be a short price, I think there’s value in the exotics. #9 BARBARA BEATRICE, #10 ALGORITHMIC, and #11 MONGOLIAN SHOPPER all love this route of ground, and they’ll all be square prices that could shake things up by hitting the board.