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.

I Want Revenge scratched; Derby looks like 3-horse race


Maiden King conquers the Kentucky Derby

Maiden King conquers the Kentucky Derby

Kentucky Derby, 1-1/4 miles, 3-year-olds

Possible overlays                    Morning line

#1 West Side Bernie                        30/1
#4 Advice                                     30/1
#5 Hold Me Back                            15/1
#6 Friesan Fire                               5/1
#12 General Quarters                      20/1
#13 I Want Revenge                        SCR
#15 Dunkirk                                   4/1
#16 Pioneerof the Nile                    4/1

What this year’s Kentucky Derby is missing is a few speed balls that will gun out of the gate and ensure a hot pace. Many of the prep races this year were run on synthetic tracks where horses run slower early and fast late, so those type of horses got the earnings necessary to enter the Derby.

I Want Revenge would have been helped by a slow pace, but he was scratched this morning due to an ankle injury. Quality Road, who won’t run because of a quarter crack, would have been an easy selection in this race and I believe that he’ll either win the Preakness Stakes or the Belmont. Running second to Quality Road in the Florida Derby, #15 Dunkirk made an eye-popping surge on the turn reminiscent of Monarchos move in the 2001 Florida Derby.

In my computer pace numbers, Dunkirk’s Florida Derby looks a lot like the best prep race run by Real Quiet before that colt won the roses in 1997. Another who looks good in the pace ratings is #6 Friesan Fire based on the race he ran in the March 14 Louisiana Derby.

Bob Baffert, who won this race with Silver Charm, Real Quiet and War Emblem, sends out Pioneerof the Nile with jockey Garrett Gomez aboard. Pioneerof the Nile has won four straight graded stakes on the West Coast, but bettors knock him because he’s never run on dirt and never cracked a 100 Beyer Speed Figure.  But Santa Anita has an inner dirt training track and I’m sure Baffert knows that his colt will run well on dirt.

Pioneerof the Nile’s sire Empire Maker won the Belmont Stakes and probably was best in the 2003 Derby, but got a very wide trip the year Funny Cide won. Pioneer’s dam, Star of Goshen, was trained by Mike Puype who said she was the best horse he ever had — even better than Old Trieste.

The previous three horses — Friesan Fire, Dunkirk and Pioneerof the Nile — all figure to be bet below 6/1, but the following four longshots have a chance with a few breaks — and they could be any price: #1 West Side Bernie, #4 Advice, #5 Hold Me Back and #12 General Quarters.

These longshots all seem to be getting better at the right time and any one of them could improve or just may take to the wet track, which will probably be packed down so it drains better. At an average price of 20-to-1, betting a small amount on all four of these horses is just like wagering on one 4-to-1 shot.

Betting this race, I will  put $250 on any of these horses at 4/1 or more #6 Friesan Fire, #15 Dunkirk and #16 Pioneerof the Nile. Also, at 20/1 or better I will put $40 on any of these #1 West Side Bernie, #4 Advice, #5 Hold Me Back and #12 General Quarters.

Gomez leaning toward Dunkirk, it seems, for Derby mount

Trainer Bob Baffert won Sunday's seventh with #9 Irish Gypsy, owned by Mike Pegram. (Flickr photo by Yausser)

Will Garrett Gomez ride Pioneerof the Nile for Baffert in the Ky Derby?

Dunkirk or Pioneerof the Nile?


Pioneerof the Nile or Dunkirk?

Those are the thoughts that will be going through jockey Garrett Gomez’ head this weekend as he decides which horse to ride in the May 2 Kentucky Derby.

Gomez said on his NTRA blog Thursday that the decision is a tough one because he has good relationships with both trainers — Todd Pletcher and Bob Baffert — and both owners. But on Sunday, he will pick either Dunkirk or Pioneerof the Nile.

And after reading the complete NTRA blog entry, Gomez seems to be leaning toward Dunkirk.

Gomez’ blog delves into the pros and cons of each horse. In the Florida Derby, Gomez was impressed by the strong move Dunkirk made on Quality Road. He also noted that Dunkirk galloped out ahead of Quality Road after the wire.

“I don’t think a mile and a quarter will be a problem with him at all,” Gomez wrote.

He describes Pioneerof the Nile as more of a head case, who doesn’t run hard when he makes the lead.

“He hasn’t really done anything wrong when I’ve ridden him in the afternoons, but in a couple of races on him I’ve been a little uncomfortable because the simple fact is, I know there’s more to him,” Gomez wrote. “When he makes the lead, he has pulled up a little bit in a few of his races, and it feels like you’ve got a target on your back and somebody’s gonna come and nail you.”

Baffert to pitch Gomez camp Friday to ride ‘Pioneer’

Bob Baffert will try to secure services of Garrett Gomez on Friday

Bob Baffert will try to secure services of Garrett Gomez on Friday

Over the years, Bob Baffert has trained horses for some of the richest, most successful owners in the business.

When it comes to training their stock, these owners don’t just pick names out of a hat. Many of them got rich by operating large companies and by seeking out and hiring the very best people.

I’m sure over the years, Baffert has learned to use his confident, yet reasonable demeanor to persuade owners that he is a better choice to run their stables than, say, Bobby Frankel, Richard Mandella or John Sadler.   

And it’s those very sales skills that Baffert needs to draw on Friday in Lexington when he tries to convince Garrett Gomez’ camp to choose to ride Pioneerof the Nile over Dunkirk in the Kentucky Derby. On Monday, Gomez’ agent Ron Anderson and Baffert exchanged several telephone calls and finally agreed to meet in Lexington Friday to discuss whether Gomez will ride Pioneerof the Nile or not, according to the Daily Racing Form.

Baffert was going to Kentucky anyway to saddle Mythical Power in Saturday’s Lexington Stakes at Keeneland. Over the years, Baffert and Anderson have done lots of business together, as Anderson’s former client Gary Stevens rode Silver Charm and many other Baffert notables.

But the Gomez-Anderson team also has a great relationship with Dunkirk’s trainer Todd Pletcher, who they have ridden many stakes winners for, too. Furthermore, Dunkirk ran a 108 Beyer Speed Figure in the Florida Derby on a dirt track, while Pioneerof the Nile has never cracked 100 in eight tries — all on either synthetic surfaces or grass.

There’s a lot at stake on this decision for Baffert because Gomez knows Pioneerof the Nile, having ridden him to four straight graded stakes victories. Baffert likes veteran jockeys on his best horses and right now nobody is better than Gomez, who won the Eclipse Award as the nation’s top jockey for the last two years.

Everyone knows that it’s late in the game, so many of the leading riders are committed to Derby horses. If Anderson and Gomez snub Baffert and choose Dunkirk, then who will Baffert turn to?

John Velasquez is riding Quality Road, Rafael Bejarano is on Papa Clem and Joel Rosario will be aboard Chocolate Candy. Maybe Edgar Prado will be the choice, as his mount Imperial Council will not run in the Derby. Or Baffert may pick David Flores, who he’s had luck with in the past.

Baffert will probably try to sell Anderson on his great record in the 3-year-old Classic races over the last decade or so. And it’s true, Baffert’s been the best: Silver Charm, Real Quiet, Congaree, Point Given and War Emblem, for the most part, all ran their eyeballs out in the Triple Crown series.

The Gomez camp will have to make their decision based not only on the Derby, but the Preakness and Belmont as well. Anderson and Gomez will look silly if they chose wrong and watch either Dunkirk or Pioneerof the Nile win while they’re riding the other horse.

Baffert, a finalist for racing’s Hall of Fame, is no doubt a great trainer.

But on Friday he also needs to be a great pitchman.

Las Vegas bookies make Quality Road Ky Derby favorite


Quality Road, who is coming off back-to-back wins in the Fountain of Youth and the Florida Derby, is the Kentucky Derby future book favorite at two of Las Vegas most prominent race & sports books.

After opening Quality Road at 200-to-1 several months ago, Wynn Las Vegas slashed the price on the son of Elusive Quality to just 5-to-1 after the colt ran two monster Beyer Speed Figures. Down the street and around the corner at the Las Vegas Hilton, oddsmakers Jay Kornegay, Ed Salmons and Charlie Ludlow are offering up Quality Road at a paltry 4-to-1, according to the last published futures sheets updated at both places on March 30.

The numbers are low, but Quality Road deserves the respect. In the last 15 years, I can’t recall a colt posting back-to-back Beyer Speed Figures exceeding 110 in their two races leading into the Derby. By contrast, last years wonder-horse Big Brown earned just a 106 Beyer in his Florida Derby.

Originally, Quality Road was awarded a 103 Beyer when he defeated Dunkirk in the March 28 Florida Derby, but the Beyer team upgraded it to 111 after further review. In the Feb. 28 Fountain of Youth, Quality Road ran a 113 Beyer.

Quality Road’s Beyer figures are significant because the last six runnings of the Derby were all won by colts who ran less than 110 on the Beyer scale.

By sheer good fortune, I have a ticket on Quality Road, who I bet at 75-to-1 without even knowing who he was. On Dec. 20, I watched Pioneerof the Nile win the Grade I Cash Call Futurity at Hollywood Park. In the Daily Racing Form, Bob Baffert was quoted before the race as saying that POTN was his Derby horse.

The win virtually ensured that Pioneerof the Nile would have enough earnings to get into the Kentucky Derby gate, and I thought who’s better than Baffert at getting a horse ready to run his eyeballs out on the first Saturday in May.

Of course, I also considered the chance that Baffert’s horse might get injured, but at the time all the talk was about how safe synthetic surfaces were for horses. So after the Cash Call Futurity, I zoomed down to Las Vegas Hilton, but before I got to the window I saw Vic Vivio, who I worked with for years at the Imperial Palace.

Back in 2000, Vivio, who is now a supervisor at Palace Station, got huge odds on Fusaichi Pegasus in the future book and won more than $5,000 when Fu Peg strolled home in the Derby. At the Hilton on Dec. 20, Vivio told me that he had recently bet Quality Road — who I had never heard of at the time — based on the 101 Beyer Speed Figure he earned while breaking his maiden in a sprint on Nov. 29 at Aqueduct. And Quality Road’s odds at the time Vivio got down were 125-to-1.

I figured what the heck? This guy Vivio has been around the horse game for awhile, maybe he learned a thing or two about the ponies. So, along with Pioneerof the Nile at 40-to-1, I also bet Quality Road at 75-to-1.

And as long as Qualilty Road and Pioneerof the Nile get into the Derby gate, I see the futures as an opportunity to turn Kentucky Derby into a positive advantage race for me. So, I plan to wager on other contenders at decent pari-mutel odds because funny things can happen in a 20-horse field with a hundred thousand drunken screaming fans.

But Vivio, who I spoke to a couple of days ago, will absolutely not hedge.

In fact, Quality Road is the only Derby horse Vivio bet, and he likes him so much that he also loaded up on the colt in the pari-mutuel future book exactas.

“I’m just going to root for him to win,” Vivio said.

And, you know what,  he just might.

SA Derby: The Pamplemousse or Pioneerof the Nile?

Early KY Derby forecast: Toss The Pamplemousse and favor Pioneerof the Nile, Quality Road and Imperial Council

homeOf the 23 colts listed in this year’s second pari-mutuel Kentucky Derby future book pool, the two most likely to win at Churchill Downs on May 2 are Quality Road and Pioneerof the Nile.

Quality Road’s 4-1/4 length win in Gulfstream Park’s Fountain of Youth on Feb. 28 earned him a 113 Beyer Speed Figure, which ties for the highest Beyer with I Want Revenge’s Gotham Stakes performance. Both of these horses sat within a length of the leader then drew off in the stretch, leading some handicappers to believe they ran the same type of race.

But I don’t agree.  

Quality Road stalked the pace in the one mile Fountain of Youth Stakes that was run in a quick 45-2/5 seconds for the half mile and 1:09-2/5 seconds for 6 furlongs. In the March 7 Gotham Stakes, I Want Revenge crawled in comparison.

The 1-1/16th mile Gotham fractions were 48-2/5 seconds for the half and 1:12-3/5 seconds for 6 furlongs. According to my pace numbers, which take track variant into consideration, Quality Road ran 10 lengths faster early than I Want Revenge.

Yes, the Fountain of Youth was run at one turn, while the Gotham Stakes was two turns, but that shouldn’t account for a 10-length pace difference.  

Of course, I Want Revenge finished faster than Quality Road, but he had an almost ideal scenario of an extremely slow early pace with no traffic to fight through. So, since I Want Revenge didn’t exert himself early, he had plenty of punch left for the stretch.

I Want Revenge, who is trained by Jeff Mullins, is obviously talented, but I can virtually guarantee you that this horse won’t experience such a soft pace again until The Belmont Stakes in June. Quality Road was much more impressive, but trainer James Jerkens needs to continue working to harness this contender’s brilliant speed or else he’ll die in the Churchill Downs stretch.

Pioneerof the Nile, trained by Bob Baffert, has never cracked 100 on the Beyer scale, but his stretch kick in the Lewis Stakes at Santa Anita on Feb. 7 stamped him as a strong Derby contender. He’s scheduled to run against a small field in the 1-1/16th mile San Felipe Stakes at Santa Anita on Saturday. 

The only knock on Pioneerof the Nile is that he also went slow early in the Lewis Stakes, but he is not a front runner. Rather, this colt sat far off the pace and overcame a troubled trip.

Kentucky Derby pari-mutuel betting is open through Sunday afternoon when the pools close and odds are locked in. This is the second of three Derby pools and Churchill Downs is also offering both Derby exacta betting and Kentucky Oaks wagering this weekend.  

One of this year’s overly-hyped colts who does not look like a strong Derby horse to me is The Pamplemousse. This Julio Canani trainee won 1-1/8 Sham Stakes at Santa Anita on Feb. 28, but was loose on the lead and went six lengths slower than Quality Road through the first six furlongs. The Pamplemousse, who earned a 103 Beyer Speed Figure, set an OK pace considering the Sham is two turns, but his finishing time showed that he is not yet Derby material. This horse will need to run much better next time to get my money on Derby Day.

Lastly, Imperial Council moved from eighth place to second in the Gotham Stakes, but didn’t gain any ground on I Want Revenge. However, trainer Shug McGaughey has this colt going in the right direction and his Gotham effort shows that Imperial Council has the ability to run well at the Triple Crown distances.

It is true that any of these colts could get injured at any time and be pulled from the Derby. So getting decent odds to cover the risk is essential.

Anything over 10-to-1 on #17 Pioneerof the Nile seems fair. While I would need 15/1 on both #13 Imperial Council and #18 Quality Road for a bet.

As for The Pamplemousse, throw him out until he shows that he can win while leading on a fast pace that is combined with a strong finishing kick.

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