Tuesday, May 16, 2006

A MOTO's Guide to the Preakness

By Steve Brady

A couple of months ago, there was a very large Pick 6 carryover at Santa Anita that I thought I’d try to take down. (Winning the Pick 6 is slightly better odds than winning the Super Lotto. It requires picking the winners of the last six races of the day. If no one succeeds on that given day, the money in the pool carries over to the next day.) It was a Thursday and I slipped out of work and took a long lunch and went down to the nearest betting venue, Hollywood Park (HP's oval, pictured above). I had never been there on a non-racing day. It was an eye-opening experience. Even in the festive atmosphere of a racing Saturday in June, Hollywood Park’s a pretty seedy place. But on a Thursday afternoon with no races running, and only the betting windows open, it’s downright dreary, and the pari-mutuel clerks are even snippier than usual. The place is populated by a lot of wretched retirees wearing nylon windbreakers and sporting desperate, toothless grins, all the while filling out boxes in bet slip cards and screaming up at TV monitors carrying live feeds from other tracks around the country. I turned in my card marked up with my exotic picks, and, as I was leaving, I passed an old codger, who casually asked me who I liked in the fourth race. Since I was betting on the Pick 6, I was being pretty conservative, and I said, “I guess I like the 2.” The old guy screwed up his face, and said, “The 2??!! That’s the favorite!!” He walked away from me with utter contempt. I was a MOTO and not to be associated with.

A MOTO is a Master Of The Obvious, one of the worst things you can be called at the track. Anyone can pick the horse that’s supposed to win. It doesn’t take any smarts or guts to pick a favorite, and in the long run it’s a losing proposition. Favorites win less than a third of the time—at odds of 5-2 or worse. Your bankroll can quickly disappear. The skill in handicapping is in reading between the lines, and remembering a horse that had a bad trip last time out, or that seemed just on the verge of getting over the hump. That’s where value is; that’s where the satisfaction in the game lies. Still, sometimes the favorites are unavoidable. And winning only a tiny bit of money is better than giving it away to that guy in the loud sportsjacket in the clubhouse.

“That's life (that's life), that's what all the people say...
You're ridin' high in April, shot down in May…”

I had a revelation as I watched the big screen at Hollywood Park on Derby Day. When Kelly L. Gordon and Dean K. Thompson wrote the song “That’s Life,” recorded by Frank Sinatra in 1966, they must have been thinking about the Kentucky Derby. (I guess “shot down on the first Saturday in May” had too many syllables to fit the music.) My prediction that Brother Derek would overcome his outside post and win the Derby certainly was shot down. The colt I said would settle for a minor slice (Barbaro) ended up completely dominating the field. (See the video replay at kentuckyderby.com.)

The fact that I stuck to my pre-race prediction was my own mule-headedness. I heard the clockers’ reports from Churchill Downs on racing shows all week on sports radio. They all said the same thing—Barbaro was training like a monster. They also said that Sweetnorthernsaint was training well, and that Brother Derek was only doing okay. I guess I refused to listen. I had spent hours poring over the Daily Racing Form’s past performances, and already made my picks, and thought I’d feel like an even bigger dope if I bailed on my horse and he won after all.

“…But I know I'm gonna change that tune...
When I'm back on top, back on top in June...”

Barbaro (left, decisively winning the Derby) certainly was the better horse, and I’m sure he will be “back on top in (the 2d Saturday in) June” when they run the Belmont Stakes in Elmont, New York. The concern for the moment, however, is whether or not he’ll win the 131st Preakness Stakes this Saturday at Pimlico in Baltimore. [Broadcast coverage on NBC television commences 5 p.m. EST, with post time approx. 6:05 p.m. EST.] In all likelihood he will, so the more pressing question is: Who will come in second, Brother Derek or Sweetnorthernsaint?

Unfortunately, I don’t have any juicy overlays for this second leg of the Triple Crown. Yet Barbaro might be vulnerable. If he’s going to lose a race, it’ll be this one. At 1-3/16 miles, it’s the shortest of the Triple Crown races, and as a son of Dynaformer, his pedigree is for distance. Also, he earned his highest-ever Beyer Speed Figure (111) in the Derby, and it’s not at all uncommon to "bounce" off of a peak, especially since he’s used to trainer Michael Matz spoiling him with those five-week vacations, and now he’s only getting two weeks off between races.

Here are some other factors:

Sweetnorthernsaint (above) was sent out as the betting favorite in the Derby, but he had a very tough trip. A.P. Warrior and Private Vow decided to make a sandwich out of him coming out of the gate, and he had a tough time getting a decent position. While Barbaro was on cruise control in the carpool lane, the Saint had to bob and weave his way through the pack. All that stop-and-go driving took its toll, and he had nothing left at the end. He had to settle for a moral victory and seventh place.

Brother Derek (pictured left, in happier, pre-Derby times) also had a terrible trip at Churchill Downs, despite being the early morning-line favorite. You may second-guess trainer Dan Hendricks and jockey Alex Solis for their end-around game plan, but you can’t blame the horse for not trying. He ran so wide in the Derby that he can now claim he’s nearly tried the Belmont’s extra two furlongs. Consider the fact that he threw a right front shoe, and add in the way he closed to grab a dead heat for fourth (with Jazil), and his race was actually pretty commendable. With a more competent blacksmith and access to Mapquest, he just might have snagged second. It’s unlikely Derek will do better than second place at Pimlico. Still, with this shorter trip (he has a sprinter’s pedigree) and a better-fitting set of Nikes, and his consistent plus-100 Beyers, it’s quite possible he could spoil Barbaro’s celebratory crab-cake dinner at Fell’s Point.

I guess I’m obligated to mention a couple of these other horses (at this point, the list of entries is not even final), but the fact is Barbaro’s Derby performance scared off any meaningful competition. Derek and the Saint are the only two willing to come back and take him on after the Derby. Steppenwolfer and some of the other “slow and steady” types will probably wait in the wings for a shot at the Belmont, and it’s tough to believe any of the newcomers will be a threat in the Preakness.

Bernardini seems to have the best credentials of the wannabes. He earned a Beyer figure of 104 while winning the G3 Withers Stakes at Aqueduct on April 29. He finished that race in a very impressive 1:35 flat, shaving 2/5 of a second off his time at Gulfstream Park in early March. (In that race, he easily defeated High Finance, another speedster who just recently pulled his name from consideration in the Preakness.) Of course, Bernie was only carrying 116 lbs. in the Withers. I hope he doesn’t resent having to haul around an extra tenth of a jockey in Baltimore. (His dad is A.P. Indy, the former Belmont winner and 1992 Horse of the Year.)

Ah Day is a Maryland-bred gelding out of Leatherbury Stables. (A.P. Indy is his grandfather—so A.P. is certainly leaving his mark on the 2006 Triple Crown.) Ah Day won the Federico Tesio Stakes at Laurel, but that’s hardly the kind of resume where The Donald gives you a job on “The Apprentice.” Steve Klesaris owns and trains Diabolical. Great name for a horse, and he’s showed some speed. He won a one-mile allowance race at Delaware Park on April 25 by more than 8 lengths. Good work, but it’s probably "too much too little too late" to try again with Barbaro, who beat him badly in the Laurel Futurity last November. Diabolical and Ah Day both seem like promising colts, but can they undergo an overnight maturation and stretch out to compete with these proven talents? Anything’s possible, but it’s hard to believe, and even harder to put money on. My advice: Don’t forget them in your superfecta wagering.

Hemingway’s Key is a closer out of Nick Zito’s barn. (If you call inching up from 8th place to 6th in the Grade 2 Land’s End closing; but, hey, it’s an improvement from the 6th to 8th slip he displayed in the Fountain of Youth at Gulfstream three weeks earlier.) Hemingway’s a question mark for the Preakness, and he might be better advised to hold out for the Belmont. I guess if you give him enough track, he might eventually close all the way to first.

Greeley’s Legacy is another possible entry in Baltimore. His past performance lines read about the same as Hemingway’s, but he’s got about twice as many races under his girth, so a radical leap forward at this point seems unlikely.

I still think Barbaro wins the Preakness, but even if he doesn't end up the “cream of the crop” in Baltimore, he should be back on top in June, singing "New York, New York." Still, at even odds or lower, he may not be worth a straight bet.

After my Derby selections, I’ve got to pick myself up and get back in the race.

1. Barbaro
2. Brother Derek
3. Sweetnorthernsaint

An exacta with Barbaro on top, and Sweetnorthernsaint and Brother Derek in second.
A second bet (with less money) on a three-way boxed exacta: BARB w/SNS w/BroDer.
A boxed trifecta with all three.

Steve Brady is a new voice in the horse-racing industry. He lives, works and does his handicapping in Los Angeles. This is his second contribution to Sports Media America. He can be reached at stevebrady@hotmail.com.


Anonymous said...

you're one smart MOTO!! Good analysis, great writing, now let's see if the picks pan out....

Anonymous said...

you gotta admit tho- barbaro laid the SMACK DOWN at the KD!

- jj