Last Sunday, I was one of the two challengers in the Dudes Challenge, a weekly handicapping contest on racingdudes.com. Three of us handicapped ten races each, putting hypothetical $2 win-place bets on one pick in nine of the races, and designating one as a “best bet” with a $4 win-place bet. Whoever ended the day with the biggest total won, and moved on to face two new challengers the following week.
Going into the last race, I trailed Dude #1 (the defending champion) by $7.60. I felt pretty good about my pick going into that race: it was the Thunder Road, and I had Tom’s Tribute. I had been following Tom’s Tribute for a while, since he had popped up in a couple of the Public Handicapper contests over the last few months, and figured he was a serious turf miler facing somewhat easier company (read: not Winning Prize). He was far back early, almost a dozen lengths off the lead halfway through the race. I usually try to stay calm when I’m watching races on simulcast, but I just couldn’t help it: I was freaking out, and subjecting a roomful of people to my ranting. I knew the entire contest hinged on Tom’s Tribute winning, and I was familiar enough with his style to know that being a dozen back wasn’t normal. The woman I was standing next to told me not to worry, he’d be a closer today, right?
I wasn’t convinced, but then he started making up a bit of ground approaching the far turn. Going through, he positively gobbled up ground. Was she right? Was Tom’s Tribute going to be a closer today?
He came out of the turn in third position, far enough outside that there were no horses directly in front of him: just green, green running space. He kept going, pulled away from the rest in the last sixteenth, and won by a widening 2 1/4 lengths. Tom’s Tribute won in a time that equaled Wise Dan’s track record from the 2012 Breeders’ Cup Mile. I screamed with elation — despite my usual taciturn tendencies when I’m watching racing on simulcast, I couldn’t control myself! Tom’s Tribute had won, and I had locked up the Dudes Challenge in the last race, right?
In my nerves, in my excitement, I had been focusing like a laser on Tom’s Tribute. I had hardly given a thought to Joelito: the choice of both of my adversaries. They showed the photo for place, and my excitement faded back into pure nerves. There was the #8, with his nose in front. The #8 was Joelito. Tom’s Tribute had gone off at exactly 3-1, the second choice behind Peace and Justice, and I was now at the mercy of whether the win and place payouts would overcome my deficit plus the place payout on Joelito.
Payouts came up, and I missed the win by a nose. Literally.
Joelito nosed out Bright Thought for second in the Thunder Road, and Dude #1 nosed me out by a whopping eighty cents in the contest.
Despite coming up short, I had a great time playing the contest, and I want to thank the Dudes again for giving me a shot. It was a blast to handicap a couple of tracks that I don’t normally follow closely, match my wits against a couple of people who have been around horse racing far longer than I have, and not end the day on the duck.
As for my picks? A lot of them did pretty well. The most frustrating thing was the rampant success that my second choices had. It, of course, spoke well of my handicapping skills that I identified these highly performing horses as ones I’d be good about throwing in my lot with, but frustrating from a contest perspective that just running with all of my second choices instead of my firsts would have netted me more wins, and would have led me to an easy win instead of a close loss. That said, let’s take a breakneck tour through the contest races.
Race 5: Maiden special weight ($56,000), three-year-olds, 1 mile on the turf
In this race, Wing Foot (2) was my primary selection, and Turf Kitten (11) was my alternate. Since he raced, Wing Foot was my contest horse. I noted while handicapping that Majestic Sunset (13), the Mark Casse trainee on the also-eligible list, was a good candidate if he got off the list. Sunday morning he did draw into the race, and I briefly considered asking if I could swap, but figured that wouldn’t exactly be fair: if I wanted him that badly, I should have overlooked the fact that he was on the AE, put Wing Foot as my secondary, and ridden that wave. It turned out that was exactly what I should have done.
Longshot My Afleet (1), a horse who was nowhere near my radar due to his slow figures, lack of turf experience, and move up in class, managed to leverage his lone speed to wire the field. He set honest but not blistering fractions, and even though a few horses cut into that closer to the wire, he had enough to come home first half a length in front of his closest challenger. Who got in for the place? Majestic Sunset, Casse’s also-eligible. He made a strong move out of the far turn and into the stretch, and just ran out of room to catch My Afleet.
Wing Foot, my top selection, had a decent stalking spot early, a length or two off the pace. However, he stopped up sharply approaching the far turn, and dropped out quickly. It wasn’t clear from watching what happened, and he finished the race 9th beaten 9 1/2 lengths, which implies that it was nothing injurious. Still, it was disappointing, given that he looked like a contender — and then abruptly not. My second selection, Turf Kitten, was never a factor. He was several lengths back early, couldn’t keep up approaching the far turn, and steadily lost ground. He finished eleventh in the twelve-horse field, 11 3/4 lengths behind My Afleet.
Race 8: Allowance ($60,000), three-year-olds, fillies, non-winners of one race other than maiden, claiming, or starter OR N2L, 1 mile on the turf
In this race, I had Minorette (2) as my first choice, and Party Now (12) as my second. Since she raced, Minorette was my contest horse. Furthermore, I had identified her as my best bet, hoping to get at least something close to her 6-1 morning line. Unfortunately, that didn’t happen; Minorette was bet down to 2.1-1 by post time, the shortest odds among the eleven who headed postward. Also unfortunately, this was another race that could be tossed into the Woulda-Coulda-Shoulda pile: Minorette was third, as good as off the board for contest purposes, whereas Party Now fared a bit better at better odds.
A Little Bit Sassy set the early fractions, with Party Now stalking close behind throughout. This was exactly where I expected Party Now to be. Minorette was further off the lead that I anticipated; she was a handful back early, and close to ten back into the far turn. Minorette finally did fire into the stretch, but it was too little too late. She made a wide move and started gaining ground on the leaders, but it was too little too late. My best bet came up just short. Minorette crossed the wire in third, three lengths from the winner — and just a length behind A Little Bit Sassy, who had been overtaken down the stretch by Party Now. I figured Party Now could possibly get up near the lead and stay for a mile; she did, and she inched away late to beat A Little Bit Sassy by two lengths.
Race 9: $10,000 claiming, four-year-olds and up, six furlongs on the synthetic
In this race, I had Bergman (8) as my first choice, and Eye of the Eagle (9) as my second choice. Since he raced, Bergman was my contest horse. I was torn for a while on how I would order these horses, and had originally written down Eye of the Eagle as my top selection due to his strength on the synthetic. I finally decided to default to the class angle: Bergman was on the drop, and Eye of the Eagle was on a jump. Turns out, I should have stuck with the surface angle.
I had expected Eye of the Eagle to get the early lead, especially since Tahoe Warrior scratched. Instead, it was Case Clocker who set the early fractions, with Kitty’s Turn not too far behind. Eye of the Eagle was a handful of lengths back, and Bergman about half a dozen back early. That positioning wasn’t surprising for Bergman; he generally tends to hang midpack early. Both Eye of the Eagle and Bergman did fire and gain ground late; Eye of the Eagle just fired better. Eye of the Eagle made up ground through the far turn, squeezed clear, and soldiered on to beat Fish (7) by 3/4 length. Bergman got within about three lengths, but couldn’t sustain his drive; he finished fourth beaten 2 3/4. It seemed that this is a bit better class level for him than before, and may improve next time out (since this race was his first since December), but he just didn’t have enough. Score another for my second choice.
Race 7: Allowance ($42,000), three-year-olds and up, non-winners of a race other than maiden, claiming, starter, or waiver claiming OR N2L, 1 mile on the turf
In this race, I had Best Bard (11) as my first choice, and Clean House (10) as my second choice. Since he raced, Best Bard was my contest horse. Arrive (2), the morning line favourite as well as the post-time favourite, was the chalk I was trying to beat here. Even though Arrive was working well, he was coming off a layoff of almost a year, which made me want to look elsewhere if I found someone with a good chance, since I couldn’t tell if he was clearly going to come back the same horse or not. Hence, I went for Best Bard, who showed enough speed and aptitude at the distance that he could run well.
It turned out, Arrive did come back the same horse, and he won easily. Arrive and Best Bard actually ran pretty similar race shapes early: they hung about half a dozen back while The Snickers Kid and Asalor bolted out head-and-head early. As the early pacesetters faded, they both made their moves; Best Bard even managed to get the lead in the far turn. However, Arrive fired harder, passed by Best Bard coming into the stretch, and pulled away to win by 6 1/2 lengths. Despite being so beaten by Arrive, however, Best Bard still managed to contribute to my contest total: he finished a perfectly strong second-best, almost eight lengths clear of third-place Sparkling Jewel. Clean House, my alternate selection, did not have a good day. He was a distant last early, came wide through the turn, and finished a well-beaten fifth only on account of passing several tired horses late.
Race 5: $25,000 maiden claiming, three-year-olds and up, six furlongs on the dirt
In this race, I had Bristol Rover (8) as my primary selection, and Hey Bud (10) as my secondary. Since he raced, Bristol Rover was my contest horse. Bristol Rover was staying at a constant level from his previous start. Hey Bud was dropping in from running a maiden special last time out, but it wasn’t his first time dropping into claiming company. He had raced at this price level at Tampa, finished second, and then gone up to maiden special (also at Tampa) for three races before dropping back for the tag here. Given the previous start in maiden claiming company, I discounted the re-drop; maybe I shouldn’t have, especially given that he was only beaten two in one of this maiden special attempts.
Saturday Sensation (6) set the early fractions. Hey Bud stalked a length or two off most of the way; Bristol Rover spent much of the time five or six back. They both made wide moves through the far turn, with Bristol Rover coming in a path wider than Hey Bud. Saturday Sensation tried to hold on, but coming down the stretch Hey Bud got up to him, and got away to win by 1 1/4 lengths. Bristol Rover couldn’t get all the way up to Hey Bud, but came in heads apart with Silver Sensation; it was a photo for second. Fortunately, that photo shook out my way, and Bristol Rover scored the place: and a few more dollars for my score. Of course, it was not quite as much as it would have been if I had chosen Hey Bud as my primary, but it was still not too shabby to see my top selections go 1-2, at least in some order.
Race 6: Optional claiming ($20,000)/Starter allowance ($10,000), four-year-olds and up, fillies and mares, started for a claiming price of $10,000 or less in 2013-14 OR claiming price $20,000, 1 1/16 miles on the dirt
In this race, I had Majestic Shoes (1) as my first selection, and Perfect Tap (7) as my second. Majestic Shoes may as well have been the standard bearer for the chalk brigade, both on the morning line and in the final odds, but she had consistently good speed for the field and could rate from off the pace.
Little did I know just how far off the pace that Majestic Shoes could succeed from! I didn’t think this race would have a lot of early speed, and thought she would probably get near the pace early and wire the field, or at least come close to that. Instead, Stand Up Rita set relatively slow early fractions, with Perfect Tap just off her. Majestic Shoes was back early — a dozen lengths back. That did not faze her one bit, though: she steadily gained on the front. By the time the field turned for home, Stand Up Rita had faded out of the picture, and all Majestic Shoes had to do was pick off Perfect Tap, and have more in the tank than Moneyatlast, Cebu, and Fog Happens, who were all coming from off the pace and all trying to gain on Perfect Tap as well. Majestic Shoes had more left than anyone despite running a race that didn’t resemble what she was accustomed to; she pushed along and crossed the wire 3/4 length ahead of Moneyatlast. Perfect Tap, leading farther up the stretch, didn’t have quite enough to repel the onslaught. She drifted off and faded, finishing two lengths back in fifth.
Race 8: Carousel Stakes, four-year-olds and up, fillies and mares, six furlongs on the dirt
In this race, I had Itsallinthefamily (7) as my first choice, and Aireofdistinction (6) as my second choice. Since she raced, Itsallinthefamily was my contest pick. There was a third horse in the field who I considered pretty heavily as one of my picks: Speedinthruthecity (3), who was on a class rise from her last race, but had plenty of back class, had never missed the board, and was second off the lay. However, since she had run so well first off the lay (as in, well enough to be possibly better than any of the starts she made before that eight-month lay), I chalked her up to a bounce risk and stuck with my two picks.
It turns out, Speedinthruthecity didn’t bounce; she just returned off the lay a better racehorse, and showed in her first attempt on the slop that she was made for it. She hung four or five back early, but started making up ground very well coming into the far turn. She made a wide move around the field, assumed the lead coming into the stretch, and pulled away to win by 3. Itsallinthefamily, my top selection, was close to the lead early, and even got her head in front as initial pacesetter Livi Mackenzie faded, but only had enough down the stretch to hold the show. She finished 4 3/4 lengths behind Speedinthruthecity, and 1 3/4 behind second-place Ms Anna Destiny, a horse on a bit of a class rise here who did come into the Carousel off a bullet four furlong work. Aireofdistinction, my second choice, didn’t handle the slop as well as some. She was just off the lead early, and tried to make her move at about the same time as Itsallinthefamily made hers. However, she didn’t have nearly enough coming down the stretch, and faded to fifth beaten 6 1/4 lengths.
Race 6: Allowance optional claiming ($80,000), four-year-olds and up, non-winners of $10,000 other than maiden, claiming, or starter OR N2L OR claiming price $80,000, 1 1/8 miles on the turf
In this race, I had Deep Play as my first choice, and Big Cazanova as my second. Deep Play didn’t scratch, and was my contest horse here. I really liked him in this spot, given the nice work he was coming off of, as well as the cutback in distance. Since his odds at post time had improved — from 6-1 morning line up to 10-1 about a minute before post (though the late money pulled him down to 7.6-1 by the time the gates sprung open), I even put two bucks on his nose: the only one of my contest picks onto which I staked real money.
At first, things looked good for Deep Play. Maxx the Giant (2) set the early fractions, but Deep Play got a nice stalking spot, about two lengths back right along the rail. This looked like a pretty good spot, especially since Maxx The Giant was a speed-favouring horse who tended to fade out late. Deep Play held it into and about the entire length of the backstretch, but abruptly dropped out of the race as the field entered the far turn. I couldn’t discern what happened watching the race, nor can I isolate the reason after watching the replay. All I know is, one moment Deep Play was about a length off the pace in fourth, and the next moment he had dropped back to last. It was that fast. He did finish, but lugged home 9th and last, beaten 17 lengths. I just hope he is okay.
My other choice, Big Cazanova, fared better. He stalked a length or two back for much of the race, and was the only one anywhere near the pace who hit the board. He lost some ground late, but held on for third: 2 3/4 lengths behind the strong-closing Jules Journey, and a length and a half behind the second-place Presenceofagenius. I was correct to think that he was a good bet to hit the board if he was anywhere near the lead early, though the first-time Lasix didn’t have quite the effect I thought it might. He may be a classy maiden, but he is still a maiden, and I’m wondering if this five-year-old will ever find the will to win.
Race 7: $25,000 claiming, three-year-olds and up, N2L, 7 furlongs on the dirt
In this race, I had Red Tesla (2) as my top selection, and Tenkiller Kid (10) as my alternate. Since he raced, Red Tesla was my contest horse. Even though he was coming in off a long lay (about eleven months), but won his maiden race off a year’s lay, so had shown he could come in fresh from time off.
Red Tesla stalked a couple of lengths off early, which fit right in with what I expected to see. However, down the backstretch, I went from hoping he would gain on the leader to hoping he would end the day alive. He took a bad step, pulled up, and had to be vanned off the course. There was no reliable information available online until Tuesday, when the Santa Anita Publicity Twitter feed posted that he was back at the barn, and either had undergone or was about to undergo surgery for the injury. There’s nothing further from them at the moment, and nothing further from any other sources I can find. At this point, I just hope he comes out of the surgery okay — and honestly, after this result off an eleven-month lay, I hope he never sets hoof on a racetrack again.
As for the race, Congregationalist (9) got in front early, set some honest fractions, and stayed a length or two in front of his pursuers at all times. He crossed the wire a length and a half of Pass the Pico (11), who stalked him the entire race but was never to sustain any real dent in that distance. Pass the Pico was a very clear second best, though; he crossed the wire 8 1/4 lengths ahead of Northern Force, who broke a bit slowly, saved some ground, and managed to get up to the front of the pack chasing the two leaders. Tenkiller Kid, my second selection, never made a huge run, but didn’t particularly fade, either. He was near the back of the pack early, but passed a lot of tiring horses late, and came within less than a length of catching the third-place Northern Force. He checked in fourth, 10 1/2 lengths behind Congregationalist.
Race 8: Thunder Road Stakes, four-year-olds and up, 1 mile on the turf
In this race, Tom’s Tribute (6) was my first selection, and Peace and Justice (1) was my second. I did a pretty thorough discussion of Tom’s Tribute’s strong trip already, earlier in this post. His closing run was a surprise, but it’s clear from his success (not to mention his track-record time!) that he has talent as a closer. Peace and Justice, my second choice, went off as the 1.3-1 post-time favourite, but didn’t quite live up to that expectation. He did set the early fractions, dueled with Bright Thought coming out of the far turn and into the stretch, but faded back to 5th late, 3 3/4 lengths behind Tom’s Tribute. It wasn’t a debacle by any stretch of the imagination, but he just didn’t hold up quite as well as hoped-for on this ascension in class.