Bad bets: Super filly Rachel and ‘That (lucky) Bird’

In the May 1 Kentucky Oaks, Rachel Alexandra’s dominating 20-1/4 length victory brought back memories of Secretariat’s 1973 Belmont win.

Being a filly who was training well, she would have been a great value bet at about 6-to-1 had she run in the Kentucky Derby. But the secret is out and at less than 2-to-1 today, she will offer absolutely no value and cannot be bet in the Preakness Stakes.

For the past 15 days, all of the pundits have been raving about Rachel Alexandra’s Oaks. Many dismiss Kentucky Derby winner Mine That Bird at Pimlico because, they say, he was extremely fortunate to ride the golden rail without being blocked. And he’s unlikely to get a trip as favorable in The Preakness.

Furthermore, experts say that Rachel Alexandra is a special filly who should be able to whip this weak group of 3-year-old colts. But these are the same horse racing pundits that tried to tell us that War Emblem, Smarty Jones and Big Brown were all-time great horses before they earned their stripes by winning the Triple Crown.

The problem with many of these newspaper and television analysts is that they want to be a part of greatness the same way that hometown baseball writers want to see their teams win the World Series. Therefore, they write stories about what they want to see happen and use superlatives to get people excited about the possibilities.

Usually, racing writers are too quick to jump to conclusions. From a betting perspective, it’s great because casual race fans believe they’re betting the second coming of Secretariat, so the money pours in and a horse that should be 5-to-2 goes off at 3-to-5.

This leads to monster payoffs like the 2002 Belmont Stakes when Sarava defeated War Emblem paying a whopping $142.50, and again in the 2004 Belmont when Birdstone outran Smarty Jones to pay $74. In last year’s Belmont, another anointed superhorse named Big Brown succumbed to the unheralded D’Tara,  whose backers were rewarded with $79. 

But, you say, Rachel Alexandra won the Oaks in a gallop, so how could she possibly lose today? I’m glad you asked.

First of all, she has undergone many changes since the Oaks. She was bought by Stonestreet Stables and transferred from trainer Hal Wiggins to Steve Asmussen. That means she needs to acclimate to a new trainer, groom and new surroundings at Old Hilltop. Also, her recent races have been spaced out by a minimum of 22 days, but now she’s coming back on just 15 days of rest. The one time she ran with only 14 days rest, she suffered one of her three losses.

In the Oaks, Rachel Alexandra did not face much competition and she had one of racing’s easiest trips. She stalked the leader from second place, then pulled away in the stretch.

The tour around Pimlico doesn’t figure to be quite as easy. First, she’s breaking from post number 13, which may cause a wide trip that’s made worse by the track’s tight turns.

And the other riders are likely to make her life difficult by trying to intimidate her. Jockeys may intentionally push her wide on the first turn or box her in at any point in the race. She may get bumped hard by other horses or blocked as she’s looking for running room.

Rachel Alexandra may lose because Borel moves her too quickly into a hot pace or she may finish second because Borel loses too much ground by keeping her wide to avoid trouble.

If handicappers think these scenarios are far fetched, then think back to War Emblem’s loss in the 2002 Belmont shown below. A confirmed front runner, War Emblem got off a bit slowly, was shuffled around, then a wall of horses pinned him on the rail on the backstretch, so he never made the lead until the far turn.

And in the 1997 Santa Anita Derby, Bob Baffert’s Silver Charm gunned to the lead with the D. Wayne Lukas-trained filly Sharp Cat. Silver Charm ran 6 furlongs in 1:09 while running head-to-head with Sharp Cat until she could not take anymore and tired in the stretch. According to my pace software, Silver Charm’s Santa Anita Derby was the fastest run 6 furlongs of any Kentucky Derby prep race in 12 years. I believe Baffert ordered the tactics intentionally to compromise Sharp Cat’s chances.

My opinion of Kentucky Derby winner Mine That Bird is that his win can be attributed to the rail-skimming ride that Borel gave him. The rail was faster than other parts of the track and he saved tons of ground the whole way. He ran a 105 Beyer Speed Figure, which I reduced to 95 because he’s not likely to have the advantages he enjoyed at Churchill Downs.

Watch the overhead video below and you’ll be amazed how Borel slips through tightest of cracks with Mine That Bird while never being blocked.

In the Derby, Pioneerof the Nile, Musket Man and Papa Clem all ran decent races while either being wide or bumped around. All three should be in the 5/1 to 10/1 range and they may get better trips, which will give them the necessary energy to pounce on the pace setters in the stretch.

At the window, I will put $200 on Pioneerof the Nile at 4/1 or more; and $200 on both #3 Musket Man and #7 Papa Clem at 7/1 or better. Also, as a long shot, I’ll put $100 on #11 Take the Points at 12/1 or better.

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