a winner still elusive

I was burned badly in a low-level maiden claimer a few weeks ago, as I made the mistake of admitting to one Dark Horse.  It was a two-year-old maiden $15,000.  More Class was coming out of a Steve Manley barn that was 0-22 with horses debuting in maiden claimers, not half to any first-out winners, not bred for a dash distance, and not ridden by a jockey who tends to win maiden races.  That race was the first-leg of a Pick 4 in which I played a multi-ticket strategy, and had tickets that were alive to everyone but that two-year-old son of Fort Prado.  More Class won.  Still, I could go back to the past performances and isolate several reasons why tossing him mainly on that trainer stat may not have been the smartest thing in the world.  Aside from the not-formful nature of lower-level maiden claimers ($15,000 was the lowest level of baby races at that point in the season), this horse had a perfectly decent worktab stretching back to early June, the Fort Prado babies win at 10% first out, and damsire Royal Roberto wins 14% of the time.  That’s not startling or amazing, but not shabby either, and enough that I would have used him if not for my over-reliance on the trainer statistic.  There were logical reasons he could win, and nothing overarching about the horse himself (as opposed to his human) that suggested he couldn’t win.

August 30’s second race at Arlington is another story, and I am still perplexed by the winner of that race.  It was a tough enough one to handicap from the get-go.  It was a maiden claimer for fillies and mares three and up, at a mile over the synthetic track.  It was a $12,500-$10,000 affair, but the field turned up weaker than most $7,500 maiden claimers at Arlington.  (Maiden $7,500 is the lowest level in the Arlington condition book.)  From my previous mishap, I had at least learned that all-but-one in a race of this level was a bit absurd.  I was at least wise enough to counsel you, my dear readers, to either go two-deep or hit the ALL button in this race.

Still, there was one horse in this race who I could not fathom winning: Elusive Silver.

This six-year-old mare had gone to the post eighteen times in her career, with four seconds and a third to show for it.  She came into this race third off of an almost yearlong lay, and had not finished beaten by less than a dozen lengths in her six starts at Fairmount in 2013 and 2014.  Those were also her only races for her current trainer.  This trainer, Gail Macari, was an astonishing 0-44 with horses third off the lay.  Macari was 1-20 for this Arlington meet, and jockey Danush Sukie came into the race 1-39 on the meet.  Of course, connection statistics do not say everything: we learned that from More Class when he defied his trainer’s goose-egg record on debuting maiden claimers.  Still, if there were something that were pointing to the horse having a reasonable shot at winning, I would not be so shocked.

Elusive Silver looked to be a shell of what she was as a four-year-old.  Back in 2012 she was consistently firing BRIS speed figures in the sixties.  She went on a lay from October 2012 until July of 2013, during which time she moved into the Macari barn, and then raced four times last July and August.  Her speed figures ranged from 35 to 47 in maiden specials at Fairmount, the same class at which she was racing before her lay.  She then went on another layoff, from August 27 of last year until August 2 of this year.  In two races off that lay, her speeds were as sluggish as they were last year, and her margins of defeat remained in the double-digit range, even as she dropped in class from maiden special to maiden $3,200 in her previous start.

The biggest thing pointing to her having any chance at all was that Saturday’s race was her first time on the polytrack.  She had run seventeen times on dirt, and once on turf.  What made me discount her, despite the surface change, was the deterioration in form.  I try not to be overly dependent on speed figures, but this was one pattern that has been useful for me in the past.  A horse going from consistently at one level to consistently at a lower level after a long lay — and then a second long lay — suggests something had seriously turned wrong.  It made the change in surface seem like more of a desperation move than anything, especially since she had not had a published workout over the poly leading up to the race.

Of course, maybe a desperation move is all you have with a six-year-old, 0-for-18 maiden.  Maybe she had a bit of unpublished galloping over the polytrack that would suggest she would handle it better — and better she did handle it, as she won the race with a 66 BRIS, right in line with what she was doing back in 2012 before her two long lays.  Maybe she just had a really good day.

Did she really love polytrack this much?  We shall see.  After this win, it would make perfect sense to see Elusive Silver run once more on the Arlington main this meet, in a lower-level N2L.  It would let her trainer see whether she can recreate her form there…and consider Arlington and Turfway instead of Fairmount.  Did she just freak?  That could be the case.  Either way, this is another example of why races are run on the track, and not on paper.

This is also another example of why handicapping is so difficult.  Even though I have most certainly crossed the bridge to overanalysis of Saturday’s Arlington second, I still cannot decide whether I gave the surface change short shrift, or if I am correct to still be so baffled that Elusive Silver broke her maiden.

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