|Tonalist: Photo Courtesy of Gene Kershner Buffalo News|
About this time of the racing season, after you've been looking at these horses battle for months now, what is there to handicap? Well, quite a lot still. The track, the post position, the pace scenario, relative class, current conditioning. I don't need to know much about Shared Belief or California Chrome, two of my most favorite three year old's since possibly 2007's Street Sense and Hard Spun, but I need to know how they answer my questions as it relates to today's race. Notice I care about today: I discount most of what these animals did before July 1, not to take it away from them, its just not as relevant as what they did one race back.
I love to read Past Performances. I think its an amazing art form, how much information can be condensed down onto paper. People who know me know I went years, pre internet, by picking winners of races I never saw. My handicapping was purely off of paper. I'm a better visual handicapper now, and I'm smart enough to follow certain bloggers who tweet from paddocks with physical condition and demeanor prior to races. That said, I get a hoot from the PP's. I love the pithy and concise comments that follow the running line. Comments so short it makes a Tweet look like War and Peace, but over time they tell you so much. California Chrome last time out ..."had no response." Bayern was..."clear,strong handling" while Cigar Street "repelled bid, cleared".
Santa Anita faithful will tell you the winner needs to be on the lead or pressing the pace within 2 lengths at first call. I'm good with that at 10 panels, but 12 tends to equalize things. The sample size is small too. With my Past Performances now, checking for horses on the lead at 1st call, or within 2 lengths, is as easy a clicking a box. So much has changed to help the handicapper.
Are you a dogmatic handicapper, with angles and rules that you absolutely adhere too? That sort of thinking serves you well in most races but at the Classic distance, I think you need to look strongly at pace, pace intensity, and which horses will be moving forward and which ones giving ground over that merciless final 1/16 of a mile.
Let's review the runners and the key prep races on video
Awesome Again G1: 1 1/8 Fast Dirt; 27 September; SA
Jockey Club Gold Cup G1: 1 1/4 Fast Dirt; 27 September; BEL
Homecoming Classic $135,000; 1 1/8 Fast Dirt; 27 September; CD
Pennsylvania Derby G2; 1 1/8 Fast Dirt; 20 September; Prx
Woodward Stakes G1: 1 1/8 Fast Dirt; 30 August; SAR
Pacific Classic G1: 1 1/4 Fake Dirt; 24 August; DMR
Travers Stakes G1: 1 1/4 Fast Dirt; 24 August: SAR
Suburban Handicap G2; 1 1/4 Fast Dirt; 5 July; BEL
I'm not sure I like where I came out with my thoughts, but let me get it down into the chart and then we can talk it through and perhaps even make a few tweaks.
Tonalist breaks all my dogmatic rules: Only wins at BEL, first SA start, trainer my favorite turf master but I'm not sure I've ever bet one of his dirt runners. I love his late one run burst and that seems to be what I'm fixated on, but that implies he is in a pack close to the pace near the top of the stretch. I'm thinking he will be sitting two to three wide and in a good spot to close.
California Chrome owned this track at the time of his Santa Anita Derby win. His five race win streak through the Preakness was as close to goose skin tingling for me as it gets. I don't put much stock in his Pennsylvania Derby, stuck on the inside, fighting a serious track bias, quite frankly I'm not even sure why he was there instead of a week later in the Awesome Again. His connections are like lightning rods among horse racing folks I talk to regularly, but remember one thing: the horse doesn't care what you think of Sherman, Coburn or Martin. The horse is the same horse that was a monster early in the year. I like his positioning, I just think he'll be going backwards and getting caught by Tonalist.
Shared Belief would be the easy thing for me to do to seem smart (I'd pick Cigar Street if I wanted to appear savvy). What a series of races he has assembled, but its amazing to me that this is his first showdown with California Chrome. I am not ready to concede he is the best horse in this group on dirt, an Awesome Again effort not making my case easier. Unless he has a horrible trip and misses the break, he should be as well positioned as Tonalist to push forward. I think he was a bit exposed in the Awesome Again, win aside, and against a field of top shelf class I think he has as great a chance to be out of the top 5 as he has of being in the top 2.
Cigar Street is perhaps the most beautiful animal in the race. On the muscle is an understatement. He should get a get trip tucked in behind the front running speed, he'll have a price I'm thinking similar to Bayern and Tonalist and Mott is always a dangerous adversary. This is a serious animal, I'd like to see him come back in the Clark Handicap and have a good late season campaign.
So what am I going to do with this base handicap? With a race like the Classic you can overthink it very easily. Let's be even more frank: How many legitimate winners are in the starting gate? I'm going with six (California Chrome, Shared Belief, Tonalist, Cigar Street, Zivo and V.E. Day) with possibly two more (Bayern and Majestic Harbor) in the conversation. It's not the sexy thing for a handicapper to throw his hands up in the air and say I dunno, so clearly this bald handicapper won't be doing that. I'm going to do what you should do: have a handicapping opinion and stick to your guns. Don't go hedging yourself like mad, just pick the horses and let it ride, you'll always be more wrong than right, but if you bet wisely you'll be OK.
I think the pace scenario is pretty straight forward. We'll assume Big Cazanova doesn't enter the starting gate, but if he does, we'll lump him in with early speed. Moreno has been 1st at 1st call 16 of his last 21 races. Expect him there. Bayern has been 1st at 1st call 6 of his last 8 races. Expect him there. I think Cigar Street will be near the front from his 2 post as well.
I think the next group back will include Shared Belief, California Chrome and Tonalist and Majestic Harbor and just behind them will be one run closers V.E. Day, Zivo, Candy Boy and Footbridge.
My handicap reflects the horses moving forward and backward as the struggle to the classic distance. What I have yet to identify is a bet strategy. I'm typically an all in Super High Five fella on these big day races. It's a high risk, high reward sort of bet, definitely not for everybody.
On a race where you conceivably win over $50,000 with a 6-1 shot on top, I think it's a good investment. I only need to hit one in one hundred to break even and I'm hitting one every 20-30, even though I've only broken five figures once, and a low five figures it was. No matter, it gets me juiced up and I work my ass off during the week so a little bit of blown off steam isn't so bad.
Whatever you do friends, have fun with it and bet responsibly. Exotic betting should never be a dart toss and if you can't pick exactas with regularity, stay away from these sort of wagers. Remember, its not just cash you are betting, its an opportunity cost: What are you not spending this money on in order to gamble? I hope its not food or the mortgage. If you have a problem, seek help.