June 12, 2011
When rain struck at Belmont Park this weekend, the handwriting was on the wall for all professional handicappers. This was going to wreak havoc on handicapping. There were serious questions about the conditions of the track and course, especially since Belmont needed to close on Thursday due to heat problems. There were lots of bad signals. But the fact that there were plenty of upsets early in the card seemed to cloud the Belmont Stakes all the more.
Once horses like Ruler on Ice and Mission Approved won the day's two most important features, the Belmont Stakes and the Manhattan Handicap, the inclination sticks in this handicapper's mind, to throw out these results and start fresh with all the horses that participated. I was really surprised that Belmont didn't change the main track condition to sloppy for the seventh race, the True North Handicap, but Trappe Shot, who figured to be the best horse, made the others look ordinary, so, if Belmont wanted to call the track muddy, so be it. But the water was sitting on top of the track and it was a setup for an upset.
The Manhattan was run on the turf and Missiion Approved used his front-end speed to hold on desparately. All eyes were fixed on the terrific stretch run put in by Gio Ponti, after that one languised near the back early. But the race was on a turf course called good. It's hard to imagine it was good after the drenching it had taken over the previous 36 hours. But the big upset was in the books and Gio Ponti suffered yet another defeat when he appeared to be the best horse in the field.
The Belmont was another story. No one really looked comfortable at any point of the race. Animal Kingdom was nearly eliminated when contact with Mucho Macho Man bumped him, knocking jockey John Velazquez out of his left iron. Only a brilliant rider like Velazquez has the balance to get back into the iron, but the horses were at the first turn and Animal Kingdom would only have been with the leaders if they had turned the field around.
Nehro, the Oaklawn hope, ran about as even a race as one could imagine. He raced on the rail throughout and only showed some of his ability when he dug in to outleg Shackleford for fourth place in the final furlong.
Our handicapping wasn't all that bad, although it barely gained enough to get us through the $1 menu at the local drive-thru restaurant. With a total of 21 selections, eight managed to win and a $2 win ticket on all 21 yielded just $45.80, a profit of $3.80. A profit is a profit, however, and did allow us to walk proudly past those who claimed to have lost a fortune or the farm as they walked out the door.
Of course my handicapping plan is to avoid overdoing any one race, so the Belmont didn't cost me any more than any of the other losers I manganed to pick on the day. I simply bet Nehru to win and, when he didn't, I lost my $2.
To calculate our Simulcast season totals, we have now given 48 winners from 143 selections. That puts us back over the 30% requirement I set out for us. Yet our $286 in wagers have yielded just $337.10. That is a profit, albeit just around $51. For those of you anticipating a "big score", grinding out your dollars in this fashion is pretty tough. It's a better rate than you can get with savings at the bank and there are a lot more thrills getting there. Of course you've paid for some concessions and programs, forms and other items along the way. Those are the costs of doing business. But it does go to show that you can make a good hobby of playing the horses and keep your head above water.
Belmont Day was difficult for those who concentrated only on Belmont, unless, of course, you were attracted to one of the good longshot winners. But the beauty of Simulcast is that you have choices and you can play where you have a good feel for the horses. My best horses for the day came at Arlington and Lone Star Park, although my highest-priced winner was Justin Phillip in the Woody Stephens at Belmont. Once again Oaklawn horses ran well at Delaware, which should come as no surprise. Not only have they been doing that all season, but Oaklawn's Racing Secretary Pat Pope recruited some of our best outfits to follow him there.
A jockey I didn't play, but one who seems to be having a brilliant meet is Luis Saez at Calder. He is the leading rider and appears to have his pick of the best mounts. Yet he still brought in a 13-1 shot in the first race of the day. He needs to become a key jockey in your Simulcast play.
Those who played the two European imports on the Belmont card were sadly disappointed. Trainer Aiden O'Brien, long considered at the top of the trainer's lists in England and the British Isles, brought in Master of Hounds for the Belmont and stablemate Viscount Nelson for the Manhattan Handicap. Neither performed well at all. All I that can be said is that they are not O'Brien's first-stringers and they proved it by their dismal efforts. Later this year we'll see many of the best Europeans, prepping for and racing in the Breeders' Cup. It could be that some of the good ones will find their way to Arlington for Arlington Million Day.
But right now the Europeans believe they have the best horses in the world and, after looking at the results on Saturday at Belmont, I fully expect they'll continue to boast that way. Only Havre de Grace's totally dominant performance over a so-so bunch at Delaware in the Obeah Stakes was a sign of brilliance. The Apple Blossom winner may very well be the best American horse in training. It's hard to imagine the fairly ordinary group of three-year-olds and even the older horses topping Havre de Grace at this poing.
Churchill Downs will run the $500,000 Stephen Foster Handicap next Saturday. It will showcase last year's winner Giant Oak along with California invaders Crown of Thorns and First Dude, the 2010 Oaklawn Handicap winner Duke of Mischief and last year's Super Derby winner Apart. From a horseplayers standpoint, it has the makings of a fun race. But right now I'd take Havre de Grace over the field.
I was happy with my handicapping on Saturday, but I don't believe that racing got any benefits from the race. Our need for heroes is sorely felt with the retirement of Zenyatta. Now we will all be watching Churchill Downs next weekend, Arlington's big weekend in August and the arrival of the Saratoga summer session to yield some new stars to step forward. It used to be you could count on Del Mar in California to provide some big names. Now there has been such a bailing from California by star trainers and star horses, even an attractive spot like Del Mar may take a step back in quality.
I'm prepared to look at some smaller tracks and smaller names to provide a profitable venture at the Simulcast sessions. Fortunately, when Oaklawn and Arlington did the first interstate simulcast in 1989, they laid the groundwork for those of us who wanted to follow racing and make it profitable. The improvement of the Oaklawn running stock in recent years has given many of us a base of horses to play for a profit. I don't think we can benefit nearly as much from following the horses which competed in this year's Triple Crown.
By the way, when Belmont starts up again on Wednesday (simulcast at Oaklawn, as usual), they will offer a Pick-6 carryover pool of $1.130,718, the result of a $1 million guaranteed pool on Saturday and all the upsets.
Once again I see the Pick-6 plays as a form of lottery. The chances of hitting it are always slim. They can be life-changing, as I discovered in 1995 when I played and hit one which allowed me to purchase the house I now live in. But you will be taking on all the "whales" who will combine their resources to pretty-much cover the likely horses and some of the others. It is the most difficult play at the track and you will do well to play it with discipline. If you dream that you're going to hit in during Tuesday night's sleep, make sure you can hit it within your budget. There will be more big Pick-6 plays down the road (Breeders' Cup, for example). And remember, as you handicap, that you are looking at six races, each of which offers profit potential. While your Pick-6 ticket works all afternoon, take advantage of your work and don't blow away so much resource that you can't play your opinions of the races as they come along individually. You may earn back the money you spent on your Pick-6 ticket and more. Remember, the whole idea is to keep this as a hobby which allows you to keep your head above water. If it doesn't do that, you need to do more study or change the way you analyze. It's no insult to you. It should drive you to be better. That's part of the beauty of handicapping.