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Tuesday, April 22, 2014

2014 Kentucky Derby early preview

Now that all the points have been given out for the 2014 Kentucky Derby, we now know the top 24 horses likely to be entered.  There will be 20 horses drawn for the race along with four also-eligibles.  Below is a brief analysis of each horse in order from highest to lowest points earned. 

California Chrome: The likely favorite off his 5 1/4 length victory in the Grade 1 Santa Anita Derby.  He has raced 10 times dating back to April 26, 2013 and has won his last four starts.  He has yet to race outside of Calfornia and there is plenty of pace in the field.  However, he has proven he can duel and finish and he has won four straight by open lengths.  

Vicar's In Trouble: Bounced back with a win in the Grade 2 Louisiana Derby after his 3rd as the favorite in the Grade 2 Risen Star.  He seems to be at his best when forwardly-placed and all three of his wins have been by open lengths.  Now, can he carry his form outside of Fair Grounds?

Dance With Fate: Rallied for the win in the Grade 1 Blue Grass over Polytrack.  He was 2nd in a Grade 1 on dirt as a 2-year-old and has finished in the Exacta in six of his eight starts.  A likely hot pace only figures to help his chances.

Wicked Strong: Was the upsetter in the Grade 1 Wood Memorial for his second lifetime win.  He showed little at Gulfstream this winter and all of his good races have been in New York.  However, he could take advantage in the late going should there be a pace meltdown.

Samraat: Suffered his first defeat when 2nd in the Wood Memorial.  He won all five previous starts all in New York and he was game to finish 2nd in that last start.  His pressing style could lead to a great trip and he may be able to get a jump on the closers entering the stretch.

Danza: Lit up the tote with a win in his first lifetime route in the Grade 1 Arkansas Derby.  He finished 3rd in his two starts as a winner, but he has tactical speed and could receive another ideal trip if that was not a fluke.

Hoppertunity: Likely punched his ticket with a win in the Grade 2 Rebel.  He was a no-threat 2nd in the Santa Anita Derby, but he may not have been fully cranked and his running style figures to have him within striking range throughout.  

Intense Holiday: Is battle-tested with six straight Graded Stakes starts and he was 2nd in his last start in the Louisiana Derby.  He rallied from midpack to win the Risen Star and that may be the running style that will give him the best chance to win with all the early speed lined up.

Wildcat Red: Has fired in every start with five wins and two runner-ups with those two losses by a head and a neck.  He was game in defeat in the Grade 1 Florida Derby and he has proven he can duel and finish.  His biggest neg may be he has yet to race outside of Gulfstream Park.  

We Miss Artie: Proved his love for Polytrack with a win in the Grade 3 Spiral.  He did make a middle move in the Grade 2 Fountain Of Youth on dirt, but faded badly in the stretch.  His good race bad race pattern suggests a bad race next time out, but if he handles the track he could be a late threat.

Ride On Curlin: Has yet to win a Stakes, but he has finished in the Trifecta in each of his last four Graded Stakes.  He was 2nd in the Arkansas Derby and he seems to be at his best when able to settle early and rally in the stretch.  

Chitu: Was the winner of the Grade 3 Sunland Derby and he has won three of his four starts.  He has pressing speed and was 2nd in the Grade 2 RB Lewis at Santa Anita in his only other route.  Class may be his biggest obstacle.

Tapiture: Raced evenly when 4th in the Arkansas Derby.  He was 2nd in the Rebel prior to that and he won a Grade 2 at Churchill Downs last year.  He has pressing speed and he could be a bounce back candidate.

Ring Weekend: Led all the way in the Grade 2 Tampa Bay Derby.  He disappointed in the Calder Derby last time out when a distant 2nd, but he may not have been fully cranked.  However, he also needs to prove that Tampa Bay Derby win was not a fluke and there figures to be plenty of pace up front.

General A Rod: Has finished in the Trifecta in all five starts and was 3rd in the Florida Derby.  He was game in the stretch in his previous two starts and he was 2nd at Churchill Downs last year.  He figures to be part of the early pace at the very least.

Medal Count: Rallied for 2nd in the Blue Grass, but finished far back in his last two dirt routes.  He did win his debut on dirt and his closing style may be a plus, but he has some surface questions to answer.

Candy Boy: Proved best in the RB Lewis and was 3rd last time out in the Santa Anita Derby.  He may have been too close to the pace in that last one and we would not be surprised to see him drop back and make one run next time out.  This would be his first start outside of California.

Uncle Sigh: Has yet to defeat winners and all five starts have been at Aqueduct.  He finished 2nd in a pair of Grade 3's earlier this year and was 5th in the Wood Memorial last time out.  He did not show his early speed in that last one and maybe he will show it this time around.

Vinceremos: Was the narrow winner of the Grade 3 SF Davis prior to his 2nd in the Tampa Bay Derby.  He finished last of 14 in the Blue Grass in his last start and he may need dirt for his best.  He could rebound, but he likely needs to improve quite a bit if he wants to make an impact.

Harry's Holiday: Finished 13th in the Blue Grass.  He lost by a nose in the Spiral prior to that and he would be trying a dirt route for the first time.  He is usually forwardly-placed and would need to bounce back big time if he wants to contend.

Commanding Curve: Filled out the Trifecta when 3rd in the Louisiana Derby.  He has yet to defeat winners and he figures to sit back early and try to make a rally late.

Pablo Del Monte: Set the pace and held 3rd in the Blue Grass.  Two turns on dirt is a cloud and he may have a tough time keeping up with the pace against classier runners.

Bayern: Went off favored in the Arkansas Derby and tired to 3rd after setting the pace.  That was only his third lifetime start and he seems to have some talent, but his lack of seasoning might work against him.

Social Inclusion: Looks similar to Bayern as he set the pace and tired to 3rd in the Wood Memorial in his third lifetime start.  He figures to be a pace factor if he starts, but his inexperience may be his biggest neg.

Tuesday, April 15, 2014

Handicapping: When a trainer speaks without saying a word

This past weekend, we witnessed quite a few upsets in various Stakes races.  Fortunately, I was able to cash on a few of them by trying to get into the trainer's head.  Why would this trainer enter this horse in this race?  One of these races was at Keeneland while two were at Oaklawn.

Hard Not To Like failed to fire in the 2013 edition of the Grade 1 Jenny Wiley at Keeneland, but this year she pulled off the upset at 13.5/1.  The question of why would this trainer enter this horse in this race was asked in my head while handicapping this race.  We'll use Today's Racing Digest Data Lines below.
The big thing that popped out for me was her comeback win vs. NW3 Optional Claimers at Gulfstream Feb 28.  That suggested that the time off did her very well and that she was doing so well that trainer Michael Matz decided to give her another chance at this race.  The fact that Javier Castellano was in the irons strengthened my reasoning that this mare had Matz thinking she had a big chance of winning today.  Below were my actual bets from Twin Spires: 

Me being the huge bettor I am only had $2 to win on Hard Not To Like which paid $29.00.  I also played two Exacta's with what I thought were the other contenders in the race, Stephanie's Kitten and Centre Court, with Hard Not To Like in second.  I also played Double's using the other two contenders with two longshots in the next race and three Double's keying Hard Not To Like with three in the next race.  My three horses finished 1-2-4 in the next race with Dance With Fate winning completing my Double that paid $193.70. 

At Oaklawn, I had been waiting for Ride On Curlin to run back after his 3rd in his last start after a brutal ride March 15.  I was hoping he would receive a rider switch for the Arkansas Derby at Oaklawn and he did to Jon Court.  Ride On Curlin was listed at 12/1 on the morning line, but I knew he would only be about half that.  Since Oaklawn does not have rolling Double's, I tried a Pick 3 with multiple horses in the first two legs and singling Ride On Curlin.

In the first leg, there was a Bob Baffert trainee who was working fast and seemed well meant and went off favored.  Another caught my eye and that was Street Story.

Street Story won a similar event Jan 10 and didn't fire in a similar route Feb 1.  She went off favored in a NW2 Allowance sprint March 16 and was a pace factor only.  Why would Steve Asmussen now jump this filly back up in class off a poor race?  I was hoping she would be ridden the way she was in her Jan 10 win with a stalking trip and that was what happened.  I played her to win and backed her up in the Exacta with four other runners on top.  She rallied for the win at an amazing 14/1 and paid $30.60.

As for my wagers, I did like the Baffert filly and Street Story so I used them two in both of my Pick 3 tickets.  I keyed these two in one and went five deep in another which included my two keyed runners (#2 and #4).  

The middle leg included heavy favorite Will Take Charge.  I thought he was a "must use" along with Prayer For Relief.  There was another horse that I found interesting and he looked similar to Hard Not To Like.

Carve came back a winner vs. NW2 Optional Claimers March 9 and his record at Oaklawn was impressive.  He was way up in class, but I thought he had a shot at the upset.  Carve made a nice move along the rail entering the stretch and may have had a brief lead, but he just could not hold off two other runners in a roughly-run stretch drive.  Will Take Charge won at 2/5 with Revolutionary rallying for 2nd.  I was hoping Carve would hold 2nd as I did place the Exacta with Will Take Charge on top.  Anyways, I was alive with both of my Pick 3 tickets to Ride On Curlin which was my goal all along.  

Ride On Curlin would rally for 2nd in the Arkansas Derby at 7/1 which killed my Pick 3.  However, I have learned over the years that upsets do happen.  I have also learned from handicapper Steve Fierro that betting a horse to Place is not the right thing to do.  He told me that you will hit more Exactas by betting your horse in the bottom of the Exacta with other contenders on top instead of a Place bet.  Since I was not going to let a huge bomb beat me, I placed an All with Ride On Curlin Exacta.  

The winning Exacta paid $280.70 for just a $1 bet.  Now, who was this longshot that won?

Talk about overlooked.  Danza would go off at 41/1 and win by nearly five lengths.  This horse did finish a good 3rd in a Grade 2 last year and now he was asked to route in a $1 million race off just one race this year.  Trainer Todd Pletcher may have just been taking a shot with this colt or it could be he knew the horse would love the distance.  Either way, Pletcher has won quite a few Derby preps over the years and this one should have received more respect at the windows even if he did not win the race as Pletcher was quietly speaking "this horse has a huge chance today". 

Keeping in mind that these type of horses do not win every time, but there is a reason why they pay well as what a trainer is quietly speaking is not exactly translated on paper.  There are many factors as to why a trainer would enter a particular race.  It could be they think their horse is doing very well, it might like today's distance, it might like today's surface and on and on.  Ask yourself a few of these questions when you see a horse that doesn't seem to belong in this particular race.  It could help you find more of those high-priced winners we are all looking for. 

Friday, April 11, 2014

Does Churchill Downs really need to increase takeout?

It was announced on April 10, 2014 that Churchill Downs race track will be increasing their takeout on both straight and exotic horse racing wagers.  They have said that it is to maintain the track's purses and their Stakes schedule.

Takeout from straight wagers (win, place and show) will increase from 16% to 17.5% while takeout from exotic wagers (Exacta, Pick 3, etc.) will increase from 19% to 22%.  The percentile increase is small, but the percentage rate is quite noticeable:

Straight wager takeout will have an increase of 9.38%

Exotic wager takeout will have an increase of 15.79%

For those that are unfamiliar with takeout, it is the amount of money that is held by the track to pay for purse money, taxes and running the actual race track property.  The rest is distributed back to those that placed winning wagers.  Basically, this higher takeout rate will lessen the winnings made by horseplayers. 

Churchill Downs race track is owned by Churchill Downs Inc. (CDI) which owns five horse race tracks of which three have slot machines, three casinos, a tote company and an online horse racing wagering company.  Earlier this year, they reported record net earnings for 2013 of $779.3 million and Kevin Flanery, president of Churchill Downs race track, said "Since 2005 we have invested over $160 million in improving our fans' experience."  Some of that investment went into a $12 million video board at Churchill Downs that will be opening this year. 

The cost for that video board is interesting as the video board at one of CDI's race tracks, Fair Grounds, has been broken for the past few years.  In an excellent article by reporter Katherine Terrell that discusses a meeting between CDI and the Louisiana Horsemen's Benevolent & Protective Association, a representative for CDI says it would cost around $200,000 to repair.  That representative also said: "Ninety-five percent of the money that is wagered on Fair Grounds races happens somewhere else,  Only five percent of the handle (amount wagered) that's generated at Fair Grounds happens on-track. Of that small amount, maybe 10 percent of those people are standing on the apron looking at that board. Everyone one else is inside ... looking at one of our 700 TVs."

From that quote, the CDI representative is suggesting that on-track fans are not important and not many attend anyway.  Well, a broken video board may be one of the reasons!  Also, Fair Grounds handle was down 12% for their 2013-2014 meet which also included two purse cuts.  Telling your fanbase that a new video board is not needed because no one goes to that track anyway while you build a $12 million one at another facility is certainly not going to go over well.  While facility upgrades are nice and are indeed necessary it is not fair for the customer especially when record earnings are reported.  

Back to the takeout increase, many if not all studies involving lowering the takeout show that handle goes up.  Even the California Lottery lowered their takeout on lottery scratchers and more tickets were sold.  With record earnings reported and a conglomerate of 10 businesses owned, it seems CDI should not have to raise their takeout at Churchill Downs.  They have basically soured horseplayers before the meet even starts.

Until race tracks understand the importance of churn by not increasing takeout and by promoting outstanding customer relations, their business will continue to decline.  Social media has made this awareness of takeout rates a sensitive subject and one that can help decide whether a horseplayer wants to wager at one race track or another.  By leaving the takeout rate at its current rate or even a 1/2% decrease would have put a neutral/positive spin on the upcoming Churchill Downs meet.  Now, it has some horseplayers calling for a boycott of wagering at Churchill Downs and a likely downward spiral to continue.