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.
Thoroughbred racing needed this. Really, it did.
It’s been a tough couple of years for the battered-and-bruised sport of kings and finally — finally — in Saturday’s Preakness Stakes filly Rachel Alexandra provided the feel-good story the industry needs to sell racing to mainstream America.
Every year during the 3-year-old classics, industry insiders promote some promising young colt as the next big thing. But not only has no horse won the Triple Crown since Affirmed in 1978, but in 2006 — and again in 2008 — prominent horses were seriously injured on national television during classic races.
Sadly, the injures suffered by Barbaro in the 2006 Preakness Stakes and by Eight Belles in the 2008 Kentucky Derby led to their deaths. And racing people spent months trying to articulate to the press the dangers of racing horses without being accused of animal cruelty.
Then on Saturday, along came Rachel Alexandra. She beat America’s best colts after some owners schemed against her Preakness entry and some horseplayers thought she couldn’t get the job done. In doing so, she became the first filly to win the Preakness in 85 years.
The wheels were set in motion on May 1 when she romped home in the Kentucky Oaks by 20-1/4 lengths. Current owner Jess Jackson saw the race on TV and two weeks ago paid $10 million for Rachel Alexandra and pointed her to the Preakness Stakes amid much criticism.
But Jackson is a sportsman who relishes a challenge. America yearns for greatness and this filly appears to be the real deal.
In the Preakness, Rachel Alexandra broke from the far outside post #13 and shot straight to the lead. However, Big Drama in post position #1 also ran early and floated Rachel Alexandra out four paths wide on the first turn.
Using the filly’s speed early turned out to be another masterful decision by jockey Calvin Borel, who was the same rider that scooted Mine That Bird up the rail to take the Kentucky Derby from far off the pace.
“I had to let her go,” Borel told the Washington Post. “If I didn’t do that, I’m going to get hung eight or nine [horses] wide.”
Rachel Alexandra, who Borel said did not seem to like the Pimlico surface, took over the lead on the backstretch and never gave it up. At the top of the lane, she was ahead by three lengths, but Mine That Bird, with new jockey Mike Smith aboard, came surging at the wire. However, Mine That Bird’s rally fell a length short.
With the hype that came along with Rachel Alexandra’s huge Oaks victory, the betting public made her the 9-to-5 Preakness favorite, almost expecting to see a tremendous performance. And they were not disappointed.
Personally, I could not wager on her at less than 2-to-1. But then again, I don’t think I’d bet on Secretariat if he was that low either. Hey, you’ve got to have rules in this game or you’ll go broke quickly. Right?
Instead, on this site, I wagered $200 on #3 Musket Man at 11/1, #7 Papa Clem at 14/1 and #9 Pioneer of the Nile at 6/1. Then I bet another $100 on Take the Points at 18/1. The best finisher was Musket Man who missed by 1-1/2 lengths while placing third.
So, now Thoroughbred racing has something genuine to sell America. But just imagine how sweet it would have been if Rachel Alexandra had won the Derby and a filly was going for the Triple Crown at Belmont Park on June 6.
Now, that really would have been a captivating story.
He was bought for just $9,500 as a yearling back in 2007 and he broke his maiden in a claiming race. This gelding never ran better than an 81 Beyer Speed Figure and his trainer had just one victory all year.
But 50-to-1 shot Mine That Bird shocked the world by riding a likely biased rail on the rain soaked Churchill Downs track to a 6-3/4-length victory in the Kentucky Derby. He paid $103.20.
Jockey Calvin Borel took Mine That Bird some 20 lengths off the pace and came up the fence, which is the riding style the jockey is noted for. In the stretch, Mine That Bird shot through a hole on the inside just as announcer Tom Durkin was strongly calling out that one of the favorites was now leading the pack. “Pioneerof the Nile strikes the front just outside of the eighth pole,” Durkin said as pace setter Join in the Dance was fading.
As Mine that Bird was expanding his three length lead over 18 others in midstretch, Durkin paused momentarily — probably to figure out exactly what was going on and to look twice at this unexpected longshot that was dominating the Kentucky Derby.
As Mine The Bird crossed the finish line Durkin seemed to be laughing in disbelief. “A spectacular, spectacular upset. Mine That Bird has won the Kentucky Derby — an impossible result here,” Durkin called to the world as Borel began his celebration.
In second was Pioneerof the Nile who nosed out Musket Man in a three-way photo finish that also included Papa Clem.
The Derby winner was making his third start off a four-month layoff and maybe he matured during that period. But he showed no hint of it during his two most recent races at Sunland Park where he finished second in a $100,000 stakes race on Feb. 28 and fourth in the March 29 $900,000 Sunland Park Derby.
Many of the other Derby horses ran Beyer Speed Figures in the low 100s and mid-to-upper 90’s in their prep races. Mine That Bird looked so inferior that the Daily Racing Form’s Kenny Peck wrote, in essence, that the gelding had no shot and Peck didn’t like Mine That Bird at any price.
“He’s very unlikely to find his way into the trifecta, ” Peck wrote in his analysis, which was an opinion likely shared by many. “Longshot players and those looking to juice up the superfecta will, of course, consider him based solely on the huge price, but it’s difficult to envision a scenario where he plays a major part in the outcome of this race.”
Mine That Bird’s first five races were at Woodbine in Toronto where he was trained by David Cotely and mostly ridden by Chantal Sutherland. He debuted in a maiden special weight sprint then won second time out in a $62,500 claiming race, which was a decent accomplishment for a horse bought as a yearling for less than $10,000.
After breaking his maiden, Mine That Bird rattled off three straight Woodbine stakes wins, two of which were in sprints. For his sixth lifetime start, he was sent to trainer Richard Mandella at Santa Anita for the Breeders Cup where he finished dead last in the Juvenile after never getting within three lenghs of the lead.
Bennie Woolley took over the training after the Breeders’ Cup. Coming into the Derby, Woolley won just one time in 32 starts this year and his operation is so low-profile that Woolley himself drove the pickup truck that hauled the trailer transporting Mine That Bird to the track on the morning of the Derby.
At the betting window, I lost $580 by putting $250 on both #16 Pioneerof the Nile at 6/1 and #15 Dunkirk at 5/1 while also taking $40 stabs with #1 West Side Bernie at 32/1 and #4 Advice at 49/1.