Handicapper Blog

Posted by Brian Skirka on Thursday, October 20, 2011 5:36 PM

Week by week we approach the Breeders’ Cup.  The two-day Thoroughbred tour-de-force guaranteed to consist of world-class racing.  Looking back on the first 9.5 months of racing so far in 2011, we’ve already seen our fair-share of great performances. 


Now, great can mean a lot of things.  It doesn’t specifically mean best physical performance.  It doesn’t specifically mean most dramatic victory.  It doesn’t specifically mean most exciting race.  It’s a combination of things. 


For the purposes of the following Top 10 list, great does mean that the replay has to be on YouTube – otherwise I wouldn’t be able to get a link.


The Top 10 Greatest Performances of 2011 (So Far) 


10) Dialed In winning the Holy Bull – Unfortunately, his 2011 season was cut short due to injury, but this race put Dialed In on the verge of superstardom.  There was A LOT of buzz about Dialed In before this race at Gulfstream – trust me, I was there.  After this effort, Dialed In could have run for political office.


9) Amazombie “winning” the Los Angeles H. – He ultimately got DQ’d for interference in the stretch, but his toughness, ruggedness and downright bullying of a way through made me a fan.  In the upcoming Breeders’ Cup Sprint, he may not be good enough, but you darn well know he’s not going to shy away from a tough spot.  He’ll be my top pick.


8) Coil winning the Haskell – Before the race, I thought Coil would sit close to the pace.  Before the race, I thought Coil was going to win.  During the race, I was stunned to see Coil in last.  During the race, I didn’t think there was a way Coil would win.  After the race, I was very, very impressed.


7) It’s Tricky winning the Coaching Club American Oaks – Nothing better than a head-to-head battle for the entire length of the stretch.


6) Tackleberry winning the Gulfstream Park H. – Gameness aside, take a look at who was in this race.  Rule is a very solid stakes horse.  Duke of Mischief won a $1 million race this year.  Tizway won the Met Mile and is a leading contender to win the Breeders’ Cup Classic and earn Horse of the Year honors.  Jackson Bend won the Grade 1 Forego this year and may be the favorite in the Breeders’ Cup Dirt Mile.  Tackleberry, a horse many people haven’t even heard of, held off all of them.


5) Animal Kingdom winning the Kentucky Derby – Anytime you beat 18 horses I think you deserve to make the top five.  I actually think the run he put in around the far turn of the Belmont after nearing fall on his face at the start was equally if not more impressive than this victory.  I can’t wait for him to be back.  I miss him.


4) Caleb’s Posse winning the King’s Bishop – This race had a little bit of everything – a  blistering early pace, a returning 2-year-old champion taking the lead in mid-stretch, and the pent-up power of your eventual winner.


3) Game On Dude winning the Hollywood Gold Cup – This one had a little bit of everything as well – a stubborn foe on the lead, the approaching daunting presence of the heavy favorite, and the even faster-approaching presence of the super-sized First Dude.


2) Winter Memories winning the Garden City – My thoughts during the stretch of this race:  “Come on find a way through.  Oh no, she’s completely blocked.  Oh, she found a way out, but it’s too late.  Holy &%^*.”  


1) Blind Luck winning the Delaware H. – Two great fillies absolutely throwing it down. 


Brad Thomas’ Thursday Theories 


Friday, October 14 


Race – NJ Esq, more lightly raced and also better rested than all her rivals, was masterful in a “nolo contendere” case.  Don’t be surprised if the filly successfully rises back to the state-bred non-winners-of-two allowance level before the meeting concludes.


Race 2 – Winning trainer Juan Serey had seven exacta finishes between May 30 and June 12.  Then nothing – at least until July 3 when he had four exacta finishes between that date and July 15.  Big D’s triumph here gave the streaky Serey three victories in the last four racing days.

            4th-finishing dropdown Sounds Appealing ran deceptively decently against the grain on a dirt surface (sealed and hovering between muddy and sloppy) wetter than he prefers.  He can make a bigger dent in the exotics on dry land.


Race 3 – Small fields can be more compelling tactically than large ones.  Just ask jockeys Paco Lopez and Victor Santiago.  The former was on maiden-breaker Harlan’s Point while the latter was astride 3rd-finishing Key to the Empire.  Both rode each other close but fairly in an excellent example of sound race riding.  Lopez tried to swing out on the second turn to mount his rally and Santiago did all he could – within legitimate limits – to keep him behind horses from the quarter pole until mid-stretch.  When Harlan’s Point and Lopez simply were finishing too well to be contained, Santiago and Key to the Empire relented and focused on saving the show (unsuccessfully).


Race 5 – Winning conditioner Colin Maragh now has seven victories at the Monmouth meeting.  Three have come first race off a claim, one was second time off a claim, and New York dropdown Black Diablo here was first start for Maragh after being transferred privately from another barn.

            3rd-finishing Caylee’s Song hates wet, sealed ground and got little in the way of pace help.  He was very game to get up for the show – all things considered.


Race 6 – Zero Rate Policy is a bit of a bully.  He dominated average competition earlier this year, but then had sand kicked in his face by genuine tough guys in his last three.  Still, he showed some fight through the stretch last time at Delaware and though his main pace rival here was a New Jersey-bred with fading form, Zero Rate Policy’s strikingly powerful lead change in upper stretch could be a genuine indication that the gelding is ready to challenge his equals.


Race 7 – Raging Six scored here first time back on dirt for a tag – the conditions when he last triumphed last December 6 at Calder.  He was 21-1 today.  His trainer, Mary Hartmann, now has seven winners this Monmouth meeting.  The other prices have been 8-1, 9-1, 12-1, 35-1, 50-1 and 56-1.  (She’s also been second at 14-1 and 60-1.)  A flat win bet on every Mary Hartmann starter this season currently would be yielding a rate of return of over 330%.  Who needs a plunging stock market when a horseplayer has Mary Hartmann?


Saturday, October 15 


Race 1 – Great job by Hardly A Saint, an erstwhile tepid-breaker and deep-closer, and jockey Deirdre Panas.  They broke decently despite the inside post and hustled up to steal the track from expected clear pacesetter and even-money favorite Black Tie Spirit.  Panas quickly steered the former away from the backstretch wet spots and never gave the less than stout-hearted latter any opportunity to close the gap to a manageable, courage-rousing margin.  With less than 50 mounts for the entire season, Panas remains the best kept secret in the Monmouth jockey’s room.  Wining trainer Michael Lerman continues to get the most out of his low-profile barn.  His horses round to form in a coherent manner and he’s proven adept at managing their campaigns at multiple venues.  He’s one of the best kept secrets on the local backstretch.


Race 2 – New blinkers did the trick for Great Big Bang, who was able to stay close enough early wearing the hood to make his grinding style effective on the cut back.

            Runner-up Black Bullet walked out of the gate, but finished decently and pulled up with relative vigor.  His pedigree, stride, and training pattern of 12 closely-spaced and uninterrupted works indicate that two turns should be ideal for the colt conditioned by stretch-out master Gregory Sacco.


Race 4 – A fine ride from the 11 post by jockey Mike Luzzi on victor D’Lucci Girl.  Luzzi hustled his mount early into a position that allowed him to go less wide on the second turn than did favored runner-up Tonigail, who broke from the rail and generally has more tactical foot.  The ground saved likely made a key difference in a contest decided by a mere 1 ¼ lengths.

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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.