What We Learned This Weekend
In Saratoga’s Woodward, we saw how a horse’s distant past can be just as relevant as his recent past. Last year, at 3, Alpha put forth a career-best effort late in the Saratoga meet, winning the Travers in a dead-heat over a sloppy track. Those who watched Alpha finish sixth in the Whitney early in this Spa season could be forgiven for thinking that he just wasn’t quite on the same level with the best older horses in training. But you could also have seen it as a logical step toward another peak effort, assuming trainer Kiaran McLaughlin was following a similar training regimen to what worked before. Factor in his perfect record in the mud – a gate-to-wire victory in the 2012 Jim Dandy – and this “also-ran” in his last start suddenly looked logical in one of the year’s toughest Grade I stakes.
A common trap handicappers fall into is thinking that the last two or three races are all they need to know about a horse’s current ability. What we see every day, though, is that it’s not so easy. Horses improve or regress, sometimes drastically, from one start to the next. It is challenging enough to decipher who might win a race if every horse in it performs similarly to their most recent start; the real puzzle, though (and the real profit) comes from one’s ability to envision who might surprise with an out-of-the-ordinary effort.
This is where handicapping can defy speed figures or algorithms but succumb to accrued knowledge and imagination. To make money betting races, you have to uncover the long shot winners that not everyone else sees. The reasons you might like an outsider are infinite and can include everything from a horse’s projected strengths based on its pedigree to a change in rider to a bullet workout. In Alpha’s case, the tips were his proven Grade 1 ability a year before, the similar spacing between Saratoga starts prior to that career-best performance and the affinity for mud. To see it coming, though, you had to look beyond six consecutive off-the-board finishes.
If you looked at Alpha for what he was last time out, then you probably bet one of the two horses that beat him in the Whitney. But if you looked at Alpha and saw him for what he easily could be based on his history, then you bet on an improving horse that went off at 7-1 and proved best on this day. The win price was $17.40 for the longest shot in a field of five.
Fair Grounds turf looking pretty
This past spring, before I left my previous job at Fair Grounds Race Course & Slots, there was a bit of an uproar in the New Orleans media about the state of the Stall-Wilson Turf Course after an especially wet New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival. The Jazz Fest, which spans seven days over two weekends (typically the last weekend of April and first weekend of May), attracts as many as 90,000 fans per day into the Fair Grounds infield and two of the 12 stages rest squarely atop the turf course. This has been going on for years and, while the grass takes a beating, the six-plus months until Opening Day has always been more than enough to allow the turf to grow back.
This year, though, concerned horsemen took to the airwaves demanding a massive renovation of the turf course. Meanwhile, Fair Grounds officials sat chilly, assuring everyone it would be fine. With all that in mind, it was pleasantly surprising to come across a friend’s photos on Facebook of the zebra and ostrich races held during the current Quarter Horse meet. It wasn’t the zebra post parade that caught my eye, though; it was the verdant turf flourishing in the background.
A new strain of grass, Celebration Bermuda, was planted this summer. Celebration is known for being more durable, with a quick recovery time, and has already proven popular on some of the most sacred and closely watched ground in the state – LSU’s Tiger Stadium. Obviously this revamped Stall-Wilson Turf Course can’t be declared a success until it’s tested by the rigors of everyday racing, but with 2 ½ months still to go before Opening Day on Nov. 22 it appears headed in the right direction.
Meet the Press
Notable quotes from last week’s NTRA National Media Teleconference…
Trainer Charlie Lopresti on Successful Dan facing a deep field in the Woodward: “You can duck horses and go to different places, but I think it's a nice race to be in. It's a very prestigious race. And if you consider your horse one of the best in the country, then you have to step up and compete in those races.”
Hall of Fame trainer Jerry Hollendorfer on what motivates him to keep more than 130 horses in training and make more than 1,000 starts per year: “For people that do a lot of what I do – I'm talking about the Asmussens, Pletchers, Bafferts and people that start a lot of horses – when you sit down and say, ‘Oh, maybe we should cut back and do this,’ it's really hard to do. I'm sitting here beside Russell Baze right now and I know when he's not going to ride anymore it's going to be real hard for him to do that, because you get used to doing it. And I'm used to starting a lot of horses, and I like starting a lot of horses because if something's going wrong in one area, say at Del Mar, then you can pick up and win a race at Golden Gate. It keeps the morale up in the barn and you keep being a winner.”
My Latest Favorite Tweet
From the outstanding Time magazine humorist, visiting family in Upstate New York…
Saratoga Springs, NY is so white they brag about having ethnic restaurants. http://t.co/CqESePEbx5— Joel Stein (@thejoelstein) August 27, 2013