In the days after Rachel Alexandra won the Preakness Stakes on May 16, several friends and acquaintances wondered how it was humanly possible for me not to bet this sensational filly to win the second jewel of horse racing’s Triple Crown.
One insinuated to me that I must be humbled by selecting against Rachel Alexandra. But I told him that I am proud of myself for developing the discipline to lay off the best horse in the race because her price was too low.
Not many of the horseplayers that I know would do that.
Another critic claimed that I wasn’t giving Rachel Alexandra enough credit. He said she was an obvious standout based on her 20-plus length victory in the May 1 Kentucky Oaks, the subsequent purchase by owner Jess Jackson for $10 million, and jockey Calvin Borel’s decision — made without hesitation — to jump off Kentucky Derby winner Mine That Bird to ride her.
All over the TV, newspapers and the Internet, horse racing analysts spent the days leading up to the Preakness touting Rachel Alexandra as something special. So, why, why, why, didn’t you bet her, people asked me.
It’s true that Rachel Alexandra looked formidable coming into the race. She had tactical speed, the best last race Beyer Speed Figure, she was working out superbly and was ranked first out of 13 horses on my pace handicapping software printout. Pundits and horseplayers alike were raving about her from Suffolk Downs to Emerald Downs.
But in a post on this site, I took a stance against Rachel Alexandra. I wrote that she was coming back on short rest, she was acclaimating to a new training team, and most importantly that the other jockeys were likely to box her in, keep her wide or bump her around with their mounts to make her trip a miserably difficult one.
It made sense. If owners and trainers were focused on keeping her out of the race by using the underhanded tactics of filling the gate with bad horses, then why wouldn’t jockeys be focused on making Rachel Alexandra lose by “race riding?” Do riders have stronger ethics than trainers or owners?
So, instead of betting Rachel Alexandra in the Preakness, I opted for $200 to win on these three runners #3 Musket Man — who finished third at 11/1, #7 Papa Clem at 14/1, and #9 Pioneerof the Nile at 6/1. Then I put $100 on #11 Take the Points at 18/1.
“I don’t understand,” wrote Jimmy in a comment to this site. “The obvious choices were the top two finishers. It just seemed like a safer investment of $700, instead of a stab to strike it rich.
He went on: “Can you explain why you would not bet the exacta: Rachel Alexandra-Mine That Bird or (to) win on Rachel Alexandra.”
Well, my main reason for not betting Rachel Alexandra was that at 9-to-5 her price had no value. And I almost never bet exactas because the takeout is some 30 percent higher than the win pool and, besides, I’m not that good at figuring out who will finish second.
But what I do have are lots of statistics on Southern California maiden races and I’ve uncovered plenty of money-making angles over the years. Some return $1.50 for every $1 bet, and others more than $2.
However, even when examining the greatest of handicapping angles, whenever I enter <2/1 into the data base filter, the analysis almost always shows the bet to be a money loser. About the only way I would consider betting a horse at less than 2-to-1 is if it’s a Mike Mitchell-trained maiden claimer.
As post time for the Preakness was closing in, I looked up at the tote board and was surprised to see Rachel Alexandra, the 8-to-5 morning line favorite, at 2-to-1. And I started asking myself at what price would I abandon the long shots and put all of my money on her.
I decided that at 3-to-1, I was going to rearrange my bets so I’d have enough on her to break even, but if she clicked up to 7-to-2 or better then I would unload everything on Rachel and forget the others. Instead of drifting up though, her odds dropped to 9-to-5 with a couple of minutes to post and that’s where they stayed.
One of Rachel Alexandra’s backers told me that she was a good bet because he believed she had a 65 percent chance to win the Preakness. But it is very difficult for me to give any horse more than a 40 percent chance to win a race.
I don’t know. Maybe it’s because I was among the 44,186 at Del Mar’s Pacific Classic in 1996 who watched 39-to-1 shot Dare and Go stop Cigar’s record-tying winning streak at 16.
Cigar hadn’t lost a race in two straight years and, of course, like Rachel Alexandra Cigar had a great chance to win his race. But I wasn’t going to take short odds on Cigar either. Instead, Dare and Go looked OK, so I put a few dollars on him and was rewarded with a win payoff of more than $80.
During big racing days like the Derby, Preakness, Belmont and Breeders’ Cup, the racing press greatly influences betting patterns of casual fans who show up in droves. In the recent past, racing writers compared colts like War Emblem, Smarty Jones and Big Brown to Secretariat in the same way that NBA scribes compare Kobe Bryant and LeBron James to Michael Jordan.
But dominating championship athletes like Jordan and Secretariat come around about once in a lifetime, so comparisons seem to always end in disappointment. And even Secretariat, generally considered the greatest modern racehorse of them all, didn’t go undeafeated as you can see by watching the 1973 Whitney Stakes below.
If you’re a horseplayer, what’s bad for the dramatic story line, is good for the wallet. That’s because when War Emblem, Smarty Jones and Big Brown all lost the Belmont Stakes at minuscule odds, whoever had the winner was rewarded with payoffs ranging from $74 to $142.50. Last year, I played three horses against standout Big Brown in the Belmont and cashed for $79 when D’Tara hit the wire first. So, when a celebrity horse looks like it can’t lose, it pays to take a dissenting view then try to beat it with multiple horses.
In the running of the Preakness, Rachel Alexandra was carried wide by Big Drama on the first turn, but got a much better trip than I thought she would. However, she paid just $5.60, which I believe was a fair price, but was in no way an overlay.
In fact, jockey Mike Smith said second-place finisher Mine That Bird, who Smith rode, would have likely won the Preakness had he stayed out of trouble and gotten a clean trip.
So, saying Rachel Alexandra had a 65 percent chance to win sounds extremely optimistic to me.
Furthermore, because Rachel Alexandra paid so little, most of the bettors who cashed tickets on her probably lost all of their Preakness winnings after betting the next two races. So, seriously, is a horse like Rachel Alexandra going to help you make a profit for the month, or the year? It’s doubtful.
Sure, the people who bet Rachel Alexandra say how great she looked and how obvious it was that she’d win the race. But almost all favorites look good, or else they wouldn’t be the favorite.
And if the obvious horse won every race, we’d all be calling our bets in from our boats at the Newport Beach Yacht Club.
Yes, Rachel Alexandra had a great chance to win the Preakness, and she paid a fair price. But I am looking to bet great horses at great prices. And if I can’t find one, then I’ll bet several runners against any type of short-priced horse, even if that means wagering against a great horse.
Because that’s the only way I’ve found to make long-run profits in this game.