Wednesday, February 21, 2024

Flatter: Are big fields for Ky. Derby preps a surprise?

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Pick a topic. Any topic. Because I could not. 

Numbers of encouragement. Saturday’s four Kentucky Derby 2023 preps have a total of 46 horses in the main draws with three
also-eligibles. Between 2020 and 2022, the same races had combined fields of
36, 40 and 40. Hall of Fame trainer Todd Pletcher, who has Eclipse Award winner
Forte in the Fountain of Youth (G2) and front-running long shot Recruiter in
the Gotham (G3), said, “I’m not surprised that it’s large fields in a lot of
them.” But the 10 entrants in the San Felipe (G2) caught him off guard. “The
California race did surprise me a little bit,” he said. “We haven’t seen too
many field sizes like that there in 3-year-old preps. It’s definitely the time
of year where it’s time to fish or cut bait.” Between the rising urgency of the
Derby trail and the fat purses in Kentucky that have helped Turfway Park all
winter, the betting public will be the beneficiary. At least the betting public
who can crack the code on who will win these races.

Chalk burn or no chalk burn. Long shots Angel of
Empire at 13-1 and Confidence Game at 18-1 won the first two win-and-you’re-in
Derby preps. So far in the 2022-23 points races in the U.S., Europe and Japan,
favorites have won only 31.0 percent of the time. If that trend holds, it would
be the second worst season for chalk since the Derby points system got started
10 years ago. The worst was 2013-14, when only 29.4 percent of the post-time
favorites won in the buildup to California Chrome’s victory in Kentucky. Favorites
won more than half the preps in 2014-15 and 2017-18. American Pharoah and
Justify punctuated those years with Triple Crowns.

From the Bayou to the desert. The most prominent
opponent and proponent of the Horseracing Integrity and Safety Act have their
most high-profile events of the year next week. The National Horsemen’s Benevolent
and Protective Association holds its annual conference in New Orleans, and then
the National Thoroughbred Racing Association hosts the National Horseplayers
Championship in Las Vegas. HISA might not get much of an airing among the
contest gamblers in Nevada, but it sure will get the once-over early in the week
from the NHBPA. Personally, I will be most curious about the Tuesday panel
outlining alternatives to HISA. While I agree with the horsemen’s group that the
HISA rollout has been clumsy at best and inexcusably opaque at worst, I also think
the NHBPA should feel compelled to come up with a better idea to fix what ails
our game.

The answer to all your questions … There was a
thoughtful Tweet posted Thursday morning. That alone would be news. To the point,
it was written by Craig Bernick, presumably the breeder-owner from Florida.
Presumably, because there was no blue check mark, as if that means anything
anymore on Twitter. “Not perfect,” the post said, “but to me, the best way to
fix racing regulation (is) a backside dispensary with full vet disclosure and
freezing of post-race samples. Feed, hay and medication all sourced through
approved suppliers. Anything but allowed substances in a post-race sample is a
positive.” That all sounds fine and good and maybe even overdue. One question.
Who is going to pay for it?

… is money. Between the legal fights that have kept
attorneys on the clock and the inability to collect fees from state regulators because
of the delay in starting its medication-program, HISA has run into money
trouble. So say two insiders who would know. Not that it is in danger of
financial collapse, but if its current business model survives, it stands to
reason the proverbial hat will have to be passed to collect more money from
racing commissions around the country. Then it is a matter of who really will
absorb the added cost. If it comes down to owners, breeders and horseplayers,
why do I fear it will be the latter? After all, HISA is a government program.

Quantifying the last click. There was another inspired
Tweet this week. It came from Marshall Gramm, the economics professor from
Tennessee who owns and plays horses and often generates some eyebrow-raising
data. He put together a chart showing how much the win odds moved in that last
click at the start of races in the U.S. and Canada in the last 16 months. The
tracks that had the smallest changes? Saratoga, Belmont Park and Aqueduct. And
it was not even close. One big factor had to be the New York Racing Association’s
move in the summer of 2021 to cut off computer players three minutes before
post time. What NYRA lost in business, it gained in credibility on the
toteboard. Gulfstream Park, Del Mar, Churchill Downs, Woodbine and Golden Gate
Fields were clustered fourth through eighth, but they were open lengths behind
the New York Racing Association. The bottom five tracks were Will Rogers Downs,
Prairie Meadows, Mountaineer, Arizona Downs and, 53rd and last, Arapahoe Park,
all with relatively small handles. While it is true that big tracks attracting
big pools are more likely to be immune from last swings in the odds, Gramm’s
research was important food for thought for everyone from racetrack managers to
$2 bettors.

Unintended consequences. Churchill Downs’ arbitrary Tuesday
deadline this week forced owners to move their 3-year-olds out of Bob Baffert’s
barn if they wanted to be eligible for the Kentucky Derby. Those moves may create
an anomaly in futures betting. As oddsmaker Paul Bach of Caesars Sportsbook said
1 1/2 years ago, “I tend to have Baffert horses lower, because they always get
played off the board regardless of odds.” Now that Cave Rock and Faustin already
are out of the mix, what will become of the money that might have been bet on
them in the next few weeks? It could go to other horses, but chances are it
will just disappear. The most significant culling of the futures herd usually
does not start for another two or three weeks. If it happens sooner, value will
be harder to find, especially for players looking to bet large chunks of
bankroll, grab big odds now for a few Derby starters and then hedge against them
on race day. With Tuesday’s deadline and the thinning of the Baffert, or
Bafteen, candidates, that ship might have sailed.

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