Handicapper Blog

Posted by Brian Skirka on Thursday, October 06, 2011 4:56 PM

The weeks are dwindling until the 2011 Breeders’ Cup.  And it seems like each weekend is a build-up to that final Championship crescendo.  Last Saturday was “super” and this weekend (let’s throw Friday in there) kicks off the Keeneland Fall Meet.  Friday’s card is no slouch down there in the Bluegrass State, but what a line-up they have for Saturday.  This is the time of year where things start to get exciting!!


Keeneland Race 6 – The Grade 2 Thoroughbred Club of America – #10 Switch looks like a very tough animal to beat at 9/5 on the morning line, but how about #9 Devil by Design at a more acceptable 12-1 on the ML.  The former has never been off the board on the various plastics and has finished in very close proximity to Havre de Grace, Blind Luck and Zazu in her three most-recent starts.  The latter is a perfect 2-for-2 over synthetic surfaces including a win at Keeneland.  There’s nothing wrong with that half-mile bullet breeze in :46 on October 1, either! 


Keeneland Race 7 – The Grade 1 First Lady – Boy, a lot of runners with talent in here.  (Yeah, I know, it’s a Grade 1, what do you expect.)  But there are also a lot of consistent runners.  #3 Daveron is on a three-race winning streak and has shown improvement in each and every one.  Euro-import Together is only 2-for-14 lifetime but has finished second in four Group 1 races.  #8 Wasted Tears is tough as nails with her A-game and is 8-2-0 from 11 career starts at a mile.  #9 Theyskens’ Theory – cross-entered in a race Sunday – finished second behind “Queen” Winter Memories last out.  #12 Never Retreat has been first or second in six graded stakes races this year.  Tough to separate those.  Good thing the Pick 4 is a 50-cent base wager.


Keeneland Race 8 – The Grade 1 Breeders’ Futurity – Could next year’s Kentucky Derby winner be in this field?  It’s possible.  It was about this time a year ago that Animal Kingdom won a maiden race at Keeneland.  These Grade 1 2-year-old races at Keeneland are always impossible to handicap, though.  Huge fields, inexperienced runners – I mean I have a headache already.  I’ll key in on three of the more outward-drawn horses in the field.  #8 Lucky Chappy has tip-top connections for his first start in the good ol’ USA.  #11 Take Charge Indy has run a pair of solid races over the Arlington synthetic and gets blinkers on after “shifting in” last out.  And #12 Optimizer is a turf horse trying the synthetic for the first time.  He’s out of one of my favorite horses – and now sires – English Channel.


Keeneland Race 9 – The Grade 1 Shadwell Turf Mile – Well, this is certainly some kind of turf race!  Let’s take a look.  Oh, how about seven of the eight horses are graded stakes winners and the one that isn’t hails from Europe, missed by a neck in a Group 2 two-back, and lost by a length in the Woodbine Mile last out with a running line of “blocked.”  I mean, come on.  The race only includes the two best turf horses in America – #5 Gio Ponti and #8 Get Stormy – plus a horse from Europe [#4 Zoffany] that lost to Frankel by less than a length back in June.  Maybe not against the likes of these, but I actually have always liked #6 Society’s Chairman who was second in this race a year ago at 18-1 and prefers two turns.  This is Zoffany’s race to lose, and Gio Ponti is the defending champ, but I think Get Stormy could be able to hold them both off in what is most likely his Breeders’ Cup Mile.


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I feel compelled to say a few words about my other passion – that being baseball, more specifically playoff baseball.  What a scene Monday night in Detroit – even though I was distracted by a bowling league and later the Bucs on Monday Night Football – with C.C. Sabathia against Justin Verlander.  And what a different kind of scene Tuesday as every Yankees fan feared for the worst with the impending appearance of A.J. Burnett. 


I’ve watched a lot of baseball in my 26 years of living.  I’ve lived a lot of baseball in that time, too.  And I felt pretty confident heading into Game 4 that Burnett – who has some of the nastiest stuff in all of Major League Baseball but has been just dreadfully inconsistent in the last few years – would come through with a big effort.  After all, it’s a lot easier to do something when everyone expects nothing from you.


However, after Burnett walked the bases loaded in the first inning, I was on the verge of admitting I was wrong.  As a Yankee hater, I was also on the verge of loving every second of it.  With the bases loaded and two outs, TBS analyst John Smoltz – who was an amazing pitcher in his time and is now a GREAT analyst – said Burnett needs an “at-him ball.”  Pretty much, Smoltz was saying that there was no way Burnett was going to do something good, so all he could do was hope to get lucky and have the ball hit right at someone. 


Could he have been more right on the money?


What ensued was not one of the BEST catches I have seen, but one of, if not the, BIGGEST catches I have ever witnessed.  It wasn’t one of the best because Yankees centerfield Curtis Granderson mis-played the ball and made it a much tougher play than it really was.  But in terms of the Yankees season and A.J. Burnett’s career, it was HUGE!!! 


If that balls lands on earth and rolls to the wall, three runs score, the building goes nuts and Burnett is out of the game.  If that ball lands on earth instead of leather, A.J. Burnett very well be out of a job.  Imagine New York talk radio the day after Burnett lasts two-thirds of an inning in the biggest game of the year?  It wouldn’t be pretty.


With his catch, Granderson saved the game, saved the series, and saved A.J. Burnett from a lot of very bad things.


Man, I hate that guy!!


Brad Thomas’ Thursday Theories 


I heard someone waxing tributes to Goldikova before that great mare’s narrow defeat last week at Longchamp.  They intimated that many folks who were betting against her actually would wind up rooting for Goldikova if she and their play were dueling through the stretch.  Well, I guess I’m just cynical and greedy.  Because if I wagered on a horse owned by the worst human being in the world and Forego, my favorite horse of all time and the Goldikova standard to me, was rallying under 140 pounds trying to beat me, I would be straining for the former rather than the latter.  And, with apologies to the overly sentimental amongst us, I think the vast majority of people in the racing game would, if faced with the same situation, do what I would in their heart of hearts.  And none of us should be ashamed!  Money makes the mare – and the game – go!


And speaking of Goldikova, her third loss of the season is being excused far too readily by some people.  The most recent horse to beat her cost $11,000 as a yearling, had never shown top-tier ability beyond six furlongs (the Longchamp race was at seven panels), and was virtually retired – as a 3-year-old with an average pedigree – within moments of the upset.  Yes, Goldikova likely will be stepping down significantly in class when matched against North American turf horses in the Breeders’ Cup Mile, but if any Euros of quality choose to take her on, I’ll have no problem swinging hard with them.


And as for last week’s 10 United States Breeders’ Cup Preview Day races run at Belmont and Santa Anita, they contained an average of 7.5 runners per race.  Actually, by 2011 standards, I think that’s pretty good.  But the reality is, that number will pale by comparison to what the average will be on the two days of the Breeders’ Cup.  The key point is the disconnect in qualitative quantity between Breeders’ Cup festivals and all other days of the racing year.  The BC contests are exponentially rougher, tougher and more competitive.  They require a different mindset on the part of the players – horses, jockeys, trainers, owners and bettors.


Saturday, October 1


Race 1 – Winning trainer Mike Sedlacek scored at 9-1 last Sunday with cutting back Emotional Lady and repeated that pattern here with Elite Class.  The filly rested up for five weeks waiting to be eligible for the non-winners-of-a-race-in-six-months side of this combination claimer and made the cut by two weeks.  (She last triumphed at Aqueduct on March 17.) 


Race 2 – Victor Electrick Kitty put her very good – on both sides – sealed, wet strip pedigree to good use.

            4th-finishing firster Betorregret raced very greenly, but still showed a tactical dimension and perseverance.  Given the way she strides, it wouldn’t be surprising if turf or synthetics prove to be her most productive surfaces.

            5th-finishing debuter Rebel Ways finished decently late and can improve in subsequent starts going longer and/or trying New Jersey-bred company.


Race 3 – Early in the meeting, combination conditioned claiming ranks were stronger than low-level state-bred claimers.  Now, it seems, the reverse is true if the dominant performance of Billy Mar N Mr. S on the move to New Jersey-bred company is any indication.  The filly dueled on a dull rail last time, but speed-popped this bunch with the switch from a seven-pound apprentice to Chuckie Lopez.

            Freshened up third-finisher My Honey B made two moves on a dullish rail and could be poised to stretch back out to her preferred, two-turn game.


Race 4 – Good job by jockey Pedro Cotto on Devilofanargument.  Cotto learned about the filly’s headstrong ways in his first ride aboard her last time and successfully applied those lessons here with a well-rated journey.  There’s a fine line between perfect rating and too much rating, and the underrated rider walked it to perfection.

            Not every offspring of one-time top New Jersey-bred sprinter Capture the Gold relishes wet, sealed surfaces, but his 4th-finishing daughter, Gold Bargain, clearly does.  She fought hard here going a two-turn mile, but actually might be best suited cutting back to six furlongs.


Race 6 – One horse in here had run five times in 2011.  Everyone else only had competed once or twice this season or was a first-time starter.  That is except for Flower Patch.  That filly was running in her 11th race of the season and proved yet another example of the fitness edge often enjoyed by heavily-raced animals late in a meeting.  Note, too, how trainer Russell Cash gave her 27 days between starts – her second longest respite of the current form cycle – in preparation for the highly superficial step up from state-bred $25,000 maiden claimers to this inflated $100,000 level.  One thing that wasn’t superficial was the $9,000 greater winner’s share of the higher-priced event.  Terrific job by Cash recognizing the way the NJ-bred maiden game is played and freshening up Flower Patch for an aggressive swing at a lucrative purse.

            Runner-up Mama Grizzly was all over the track and made several stop-and-start runs.  She burst nicely on the dullish rail into the stretch and continued gamely on the fence through the stretch.  She should improve next out, but since the state-bred maiden ranks currently are so depleted, could go off at an underlayed price.


Race 8 – Perhaps 1 1/16 miles is at the far end of Innisfree’s distance horizon, but the wet, sealed surface (He’s bred to the gills for it.), a perfectly-timed Chuckie Lopez middle-moving ride, and stretch foe Steady Gentleman being forced to fight it out on a dull inside all conspired to get him the victory.

            Third-finishing 6/5 favorite Cryin Out Loud, front bandages on and an uncoupled stablemate of runner-up Steady Gentleman, ran decently following a long break.  Still, I have a feeling he’s vulnerable next time off a likely relatively-quick return.  (Restricted money for New Jersey-breds in 2011 is on a short clock!)


Race 9 – It’s a bird!  It’s a plane!  No, it’s veteran war gelding Tastefully Smart swooping down on rivals while droping to a straight claiming level at which he’s a veritable superman.  The 7-year-old can do it on the lead or – as he showed here – from off the pace.

            Runner-up Open Outcry (11-1) was very game in defeat to stay for the place after battling relentless pressure from stretching out Just Playin Around.  The former is trained by Ed Coletti, Sr., who also sent out 7-1 Race 3 victor Billy Mar N Mr. S.  Both live Coletti horses took considerable early and middle-wagering dollars before drifting up to their off odds.


Race 10 – A huge day for jockey Pedro Cotto culminated with his fifth score of the afternoon on dropdown After Words.  All of Cotto’s victories were accomplished for a different trainer.

            Third-finishing Spell Run improved on the wet, sealed surface despite changing her style (sitting off the pace) and racing much of the time on a dullish rail.


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Brian Skirka graduated from Rutgers University in 2007 with a degree in journalism. He currently works for Monmouth Park’s marketing and publicity departments and is in his fifth year working at the track. In the past, Brian’s work has also been published on www.thebigm.com and www.ntra.com.