Last weekend was a huge one of Derby preps, stakes races, and handicapping contests. I played Public Handicapper, as I do every week, and also played the contest that Danonymous Racing hosted. I’m also playing in @horseracing4beg’s Derby Prep Betting Challenge, which covers all the 100 point Derby preps. Across these contests, it meant I handicapped a total of nine stakes races: four at Gulfstream, three at Fair Grounds, and two at Meydan. Some went well, some less so…though, when all is said and done, no day on which Palace Malice wins can be a bad one.
Appleton Stakes (GIII, 1 mile on the turf)
In this race, Mr. Online was my first choice, and Kharafa was my second. Since he raced, Mr. Online was my contest horse. Especially for a win/place contest, it was hard to do better than him — his statistics compared favourably with the field, and he came into this race with nine straight win or place finishes, including two seconds in graded stakes.
A speed horse, Mr. Online did not disappoint, and he bolted near the lead early. Midnight Cello faded fast, and Mr. Online led the way until the shadow of the wire. Hey Leroy, a closing type horse on a big class jump into this race, very much fired in this race. He was squeezed back to last early, but unfazed. He gradually made up a little ground down the backstretch, but not a ton. Still about four lengths off coming into the stretch, he came through wide and hit his best stride. That stride had him barreling past horses — and got his neck in front of Mr. Online’s to snatch the win. Salto, who had hit the board (but not won) in three straight stakes appearances coming into the Appleton looked primed on paper to do that again. Sure enough, he stalked along the rail, but didn’t have enough late to catch either Hey Leroy or Mr. Online. He checked in third.
My second choice, Kharafa, did not get the early speed he probably wanted. He made a run at the pack, and was less than two lengths off the pace in the far turn, but then lost his drive. He faded badly down the stretch, and checked in 8th beaten 12 1/2 lengths.
Skip Away Stakes (GIII, 1 3/16 miles on the dirt)
In this race, I had War Dancer as my first choice, and Nikki’s Sandcastle as my second. Since he raced, War Dancer was my contest horse.
I had never, ever seen quite a glaring example of betting down a supposed price horse as I saw in the Skip Away. There were a few horses I liked decently enough here: War Dancer, Nikki’s Sandcastle, Nevada Kid, maybe Norumbega. The 15-1 morning line on War Dancer sounded like an overlay, so I thought I could get a decent horse for a decent price, even if he was bet down. (To compare, I tossed out Norumbega as a contest horse in significant part because I thought the McGaughey/Velazquez connections would be bet down hard, and I didn’t like him more than other horses.) It turned out that many people must have had the same idea as I did; War Dancer actually went off as the 3.1-1 betting favourite! Oops.
One horse in this field proved clearly best, and that horse was Micromanage. He got a good stalking place early, a couple lengths off, and then kicked down the stretch to run away with it. He checked in 4 1/4 lengths in front of Norumbega: a horse I expected to go off favoured or close to it, but who ended up going off as the fourth choice, at just shy of 5-1! Norumbega was off the pace early and made a wide closing move into the stretch, but didn’t have enough to match the last boost of Micromanage. Sr. Quisqueyano, battling Nevada Kid for the lead early, faded less badly than his early rival and held on for third.
My first choice, War Dancer, started slowly and never recovered. He got in about seven lengths off, but lost ground late — finishing seventh, only ahead of three significantly tired horses. My second choice, Nikki’s Sandcastle, fared a little bit better than that, though not extremely well. He stayed near the back of the chasing pack early, though not relegated to the stragglers despite having checked on the clubhouse turn. He turned wide and made a slight move, but never really threatened the leaders. Nikki’s Sandcastle held on for fourth, though, mainly because he faded less profoundly than most of the rest of the pack.
Pan American Stakes (GII, 1 ½ miles on the turf)
Here my first choice was Amira’s Prince, my second was Suntracer, and my third was Admiral Kitten. Amira’s Prince scratched out of the Pan American to run the Muniz at Fair Grounds instead, so Suntracer was my contest horse.
What can I say about my two contest horses remaining in the race, other than that they did just about the same thing, only Suntracer at a better price? They’re both closers. They both were back early. Neither of them fired a bit. At least Suntracer failed to fire at 11.5-1, whereas Admiral Kitten failed to fire at 2.2-1.
It was Newsdad who ended up carrying the day. I thought he may hit the board, but didn’t think he’d be the same horse who scored in the Pan American in 2012. His last race was his first after an almost yearlong lay, and he was rusty and fading late. I underestimated Newsdad: extremely far back early, he proved that closing win in the 2012 Fayette (GII) was no fluke. He made up ground, swung outside during that second trip through the far turn, and got his neck in front of Vertiformer for the win. Vertiformer, who stalked near the rail a few lengths back most of the race, made a good closing run but finished with just less than Newsdad. Slumber, who spent much of the race only a handful of lengths ahead of Newsdad, also closed well; he crossed the wire 3/4 length behind Newsdad in third. The 4th place finisher, Joes Blazing Aaron, is worth mentioning here only because of how badly I underestimated him. He was alone on the lead through most of the race, but I thought he was outclasses, and served no useful purpose in this race other than as a rabbit for Admiral Kitten and Charming Kitten. Turns out, he doggedly held his own, and only grudgingly surrendered his lead in the final sixteenth. He was tougher than I expected, and finished in front of both horses for whom I suspected him to be rabbiting.
Florida Derby (GI, three-year-olds, 1 1/8 miles on the dirt)
In this race, I had General a Rod as my first selection, Wildcat Red as my second, and Constitution as my third. Since he raced, General a Rod was my contest horse. For once, even though I had them in the wrong order, my contest horses all had a pretty decent run at things, and all hit the board.
As expected, Wildcat Red got the lead near the rail, and set the fractions. General a Rod tracked just off in second, a length or so bad early, but closing up a bit to get right next to him near the far turn. Constitution stalked along the rail in third. As the far turn straightened out into the stretch, Wildcat Red got just far enough off the rail that a charging horse could fit through. Javier Castellano saw that, and figured that was all he needed to get Constitution through. He was right. Constitution slipped through, dueled with Wildcat Red down the stretch, and got forward ever-so-slightly to win by a neck. I caught myself loving Wildcat Red so much going into this race, but once again I let the fact that he’s by D’Wildcat give me pause. He is by the Miner’s Mark mare Racene, and that dam-side stamina carried him nine furlongs better than I wanted to let myself expect. Wildcat Red is one game horse. General a Rod checked in third, 1 1/2 lengths behind Constitution. The stretch run wasn’t a train wreck, but it wasn’t as good as I was hoping to see. I hoped he’d at least be able to fight head-bob for head-bob with Constititution and Wildcat Red, but it was clear pretty early in the stretch that the best the General was going to muster was third.
Constitution and Wildcat Red are in the Derby, barring any kind of injury between now and then. General a Rod is hopefully good with the 40 points he has now, but it’s not a slam dunk yet. Hopefully there will be just enough repeat winners and placers in the remaining preps to leave room in the gate, and hopefully this performance was either a one-shot regression or a question of learning to rate a little better. I only hope it’s not a dislike for nine furlongs, since that little race in Kentucky is ten.
Crescent City Derby Stakes (three-year-olds, Louisiana-bred, 1 1/16 miles on the dirt)
In this race, I had Youve Got a Friend as my first choice, and Gold Appointment as my second. Since he ran, Youve Got a Friend was my contest horse.
One of my choices ran away with this race; to the detriment of my contest performance, it was not my first-choice horse. Gold Appointment, in his first race back from a maiden win, was just the live longshot I hoped to see. His maiden win was his first attempt on the dirt, and he continued to show his love of dirt here. He ran a bit differently than expected, though. He had won his maiden race from a stalking place. This time he broke alertly, shot to the lead, and left the field eating his dust. Hot Zapper, the favourite, made enough of a closing run to finish eight lengths in front of the rest of the field, but that was still four lengths behind Gold Appointment. Longshot Blue Forty Two, who along with Grand Isle was within a length or two of Gold Appointment early, held on for a well-beaten third, a dozen lengths back.
Youve Got a Friend, my primary choice for the race, did not get anywhere near the early speed. That boded poorly for him, since he does his best from a stalking place. He was right in the back of the pack early, and would have needed a big closing run to do anything in this race. That’s clearly not his style. He passed enough tiring horses to finish 6th beaten 19 1/4 lengths, but never seriously contended for the win, much less a spot on the board.
New Orleans Handicap (GII, 1 1/8 miles on the dirt)
In this race, I had Palace Malice as my first choice, Mister Marti Gras as my second choice, and Normandy Invasion as my third. Mister Marti Gras scratched. However, that didn’t change my contest horse; Palace Malice ran, so I had him.
As should be abundantly clear by now, Blinkers Off will never complain about throwing their lot in with Palace Malice.
I have already discussed this race here, so there’s no use repeating myself too much. Palace Malice showed yet again that he’s up to run a big race on fairly short rest, and showed that he’s a true route horse. Normandy Invasion may have been half a dozen lengths clear of the rest of the field, but Palace Malice hit his stride down the stretch and finished a widening 4 3/4 lengths ahead of Normandy Invasion. He found another way to prove that he is a force to be reckoned with in the older dirt horse division this year.
Louisiana Derby (GII, three-year-olds, 1 1/8 miles on the dirt)
In this race, I had In Trouble as my first choice, Intense Holiday as my second, and Vicar’s In Trouble as my third. Since he raced, In Trouble was my contest horse. The good news about this race was that horses in my group of selections filled out the exacta. The bad news was that In Trouble was the horse left out in the cold.
Vicar’s In Trouble broke sharply, and contended with Louies Flower early for the lead. Louies Flower faded, but the Vicar stayed on. He never got too loose on the lead down the backstretch, but he was clearly the one who got to dictate the pace. Rise Up, far back early, made it up within a length of him coming into the far turn, and In Trouble and Intense Holiday were in the mix there as well. However, come the stretch, Vicar’s In Trouble pulled a few lengths in front, and no one seriously challenged late. He crossed the wire 3 1/2 lengths in front of Intense Holiday, who drove well enough not to lose ground down the stretch — but couldn’t gain any, either. Commanding Curve, last early, made up enough ground to pass the tiring field and come in third. The early pace wasn’t fast enough to set up for a closer like him, but he at least showed that he could stand a chance in a route where pace does fall apart.
In Trouble, my top choice, had no answer to Vicar’s In Trouble. He found a stalking place early, whih should have boded well, but ran a flat race with no clearly apparent excuse. He faded off through the far turn, and crossed the wire fourth: 8 3/4 lengths behind Vicar’s In Trouble. However, he had gone out into Albano on the backstretch, hard enough to disqualify him from fourth. Albano, who had finished a length and a half behind In Trouble, was elevated to fourth, and given the ten Derby points. In Trouble was placed fifth, for none.
Dubai World Cup (GI UAE, 2000 metres (about 1 ¼ miles) on the Tapeta)
In this race, Prince Bishop was my first choice, and Red Cadeaux was my second. Since he raced, Prince Bishop was my contest horse. This was my first time even attempting to handicap Dubai, I was very unfamiliar with the horses, and I didn’t feel like I had as much to go on as usual. I liked Prince Bishop because he had experience with the Meydan course, and had run well in his preps. I picked Red Cadeaux because he had run well in last year’s Dubai World Cup, and had shown from his performance in the Melbourne Cup that he could race well from a brutal post position.
It turns out my instinct to like horses who had raced at Meydan before wasn’t a terrible angle to take. African Story, the victor, had raced almost exclusively at Meydan over the last few years; he had won the Godolphin Mile in 2012, and was fifth in the World Cup last year. He got a nice stalking place, and overtook the frontrunning Mukhadram late. I was also right that there may be some horses who overcame terrible post positions: both the second and the third place horses came from double-digit gates. However, it was the horses on either side of Red Cadeaux, and not Red Cadeaux himself. Mukhadram, breaking from the 13 gate, came here first off a layoff since October (and in his first career start on any surface other than turf!) to finish just 2 3/4 lengths behind African Story. Cat O’Mountain, the third place horse, overcame the 15 gate; after three preps at Meydan (including a win at 1 3/8 miles in January) he closed big enough to finish third, seven lengths behind African Story.
Prince Bishop, who had been racing so well at Meydan, regressed. He fell to last early despite the inner gate. He closed well enough to finish 9th, but was no serious threat to the horses on the board. Red Cadeaux, second-t0-last through most of the race, fared somewhat better. He managed to make a move, and crossed the wire in 6th — just a length behind the third-place Cat O’Mountain.
What did I learn most from this race? Pay a bit more attention to Meydan, because it’s going to come up in handicapping contests — and the betting payouts are juicy if you know what you’re doing!
UAE Derby (GII UAE, three-year-olds, 1900 metres (about 1 3/16 miles) on the Tapeta)
In this race, I was torn between Giovanni Boldini and Asmar. I thought they both had decent chances to do well — Giovanni Boldini I thought was more likely to do better, though Asmar at a better price. So, where the goal was to amass betting dollars I wanted Asmar, but where the goal was to amass Derby points I wanted Giovanni Boldini. I ended up messing up royally here: thinking that @horseracing4beg’s contest was a points contest, I sent Giovanni Boldini as my primary pick, and Asmar my alternate. Of course, that was in error — it’s a price contest, and I should have sent Asmar as my primary.
I paid for this dearly, of course. Had I sent the right horse in, I’d be sitting on his nice little place payout instead of being squarely on the duck.
Toast of New York, the winner, had a great race. I underestimate the surface factor with him; his only really bad race was on turf, and his last two times out were wins by double-digit lengths over the synthetic. However, they were against maiden and allowance company, and at distances shorter than this. He proved his mettle here. He stalked the frontrunning Safety Check, got his neck in front about two furlongs from the finish, and powered to a 2 1/2 length victory over Asmar. Asmar, my second choice in the race, was mid-pack early, but able to get into a stalking place. He didn’t have as much late as Toast of New York did, but had enough staying power to finish second. Emirates Flyer, at least, did about what I expected him to do. He had no stakes victories but a ton of close seconds — and on that, I saw him as a good bet to hit the board but an awful bet to win. He nosed out Giovanni Boldini for third.
Giovanni Boldini didn’t have the race hoped for, plain and simple. He was very far back early, and didn’t really catch until the last five or six hundred meters. He closed up ground decently enough once he got going, but still only managed to get within 3 3/4 lengths of the lead by the time the wire fell. Whether it was the layoff or the synthetic surface, it wasn’t quite enough.