My First Handicapping Trend At This Meet Which Seems to Work Without Fail

Feb. 12, 2013

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This has been a difficult year for handicapping at Oaklawn, in part because there has been no single dominant jockey or trainer who is completely dependable.  I thought, at the beginning of the season, that Robby Albarado would totally dominate the jockeys and that Jamie Ness would be clearly the big name in the trainer rankings.  So far both are doing okay, but they haven’t achieved the status which handicappers need to be dependable in tough calls.

Albarado has a clear lead among the jockeys, but there are so many having success that it’s hard to feel his dominance.  While he has 17 winners at this point, there are four jockeys with 10 wins and a handful just a bit below that, making Albarado’s lead a shade less than dominant.  On Sunday veteran jockey Eddie Martin, Jr. made the most impressive single performance of the year, vaulting into a tie for second in the standings with a four-win performance and for three different trainers, Al Stall Jr., Phil Sims and Randy Morse, all of whom aren’t in the top three in the conditioner rankings.

The trainer standings are a jumble with Chris Richard, Cody Autrey and Mack Robertson at the top of that list, none of whom have ever been leading trainer at Oaklawn.  Where is Ness, who trains for the prolific Midwest Thoroughbreds, Inc. of Karen and Richard Papiese, the nation’s leader in wins by a large margin?  Ness is tied for ninth with a former Oaklawn titlist Allen Milligan.  Other names like Steve Hobby, Phil Sims, Randy Morse, Ron Moquett and Donnie K. Von Hemel, all stand ahead of Ness and Milligan, even though they have much smaller numbers of horses.  Absent from the top ten is a trainer like Steve Asmussen, who starts lots of horses but lacks in high win percentage.

Those stats are somewhat surprising to me.  We haven’t yet seen the start of Calvin Borel or any significant impact from Rosemary Homeister, Jr., both of whom figured to play an important role in this spring meet.  Borel has the excuse of injury, since the crowd and the entire city have been sitting and patiently awaiting his return so that they can celebrate win number 5,000.  Ironically trainer Steve Hobby started this meet needing nearly 10 wins to achieve 1,000 for his career.  There’s a good chance he’ll reach that mark before Calvin gets the one necessary for 5,000.  Those are landmark achievements for each individual and I’m happy to note that they should be happening in front of the finest racing audience in America, at Oaklawn Park.

But the real trend which I’ve notice and which can save a player some stress and money is what has happened with some of the recent shippers which have become race favorites off their form elsewhere and imported special riders to handle them over the Oaklawn surface.

Shippers have not always had a bad experience at Oaklawn. Clearly four of the last five Arkansas Derby winners were horses without Oaklawn experience and an abundance of Apple Blossom Handicap winners were those who only arrived for that race.  Names like Bodemeister, Line of David, Papa Clem and Gayego were all successful in the Arkansas Derby, while the roster of Apple Blossom winners includes Plum Pretty, Seventh Street, Spun Sugar, Dream of Summer, Gourmet Girl and the repeaters like Azeri and Zenyatta.  For me the key this year is the jockeys who are riding the shippers and their priority in riding that race, i.e., not taking a mount prior to the stakes.

At least three horses have shipped in with impressive credentials, including a rider who would ride that horse  only on the day’s card.  Now I understand that these riders are professionals and ship out on occasion and achieve success without the need for prior experience over the track.  But the three horses which I noticed were all travelling a distance of ground and might have benefitted from a jockey knowing where he is on the track, particularly in the one mile races to the short finish line.  It might have made a difference in the way they handled their mounts.  I know that they all might have been defeated under any circumstances, but it begs the question who spend all that money when there are plenty of capable riders right here on the grounds?

Let’s go back to the Smarty Jones on January 21.  I’m under the impression that Ramon Dominguez was originally scheduled to rider Always in a Tiz in that race, but it came up right after the accident which has sidelined that standout jockey indefinitely.  In his place trainer, Dominick Schettino came up with jockey Paco Lopez.  No knock against Lopez, whose early career reminds me of the career of Garrett Gomez.  He has great talent and should make a mark eventually.  But on that day he encountered some traffic at a key point, and came up just short of Will Take Charge and Texas Bling at the wire.  He might have won that race under different circumstances and I’m anxious to see what he does on his return to the races.

Let’s go back to February 2 and the Essex Handicap at a mile-and-a-sixteenth.  The horse which shipped in and was the odds-on favorite was San Pablo, a speedball with a series of dominant speed wins at east coast tracks.  His ship-in rider, Chris DeCarlo.  Chris often ships for trainer Todd Pletcher, so that was no surprise.  With no mount earlier in the card, he couldn’t get that controlling speed position with his mount and succumbed to the late charge of Donoharm.

More of the same this weekend with the heavily favored Rose to Gold in the Martha Washington.  She was unlucky in the post position draw to get the outside in the one mile event.  But Smarty Jones drew the outside at Oaklawn going long, too, so good horses are expected to overcome that obstacle.  She also had enough speed to keep the pressure on an outside named Sister Ginger early on.  It was almost the same early scenario as San Pablo encountered in the Essex Handicap.  There was also jockey Juan Leyva, her regular pilot, aboard.  No surprise, Leyva had no other mount that day.  When the field turned for home Rose to Gold came up empty and had no late challenge for Sister Ginger.  She was easily second, but that wasn’t the expected result.

The only common denominator for Always in a Tiz, San Pablo and Rose to Gold, outside of the fact that each shipped in specifically for their race, was that they had a rider who took no other mounts that day.  All are capable riders, but for the most part it was their first time over the track.  It’s the only real handicapping trend that I’ve been able to latch onto in the early stages of the meet.  I don’t expect it to stay, but it will definitely impact my selections for this coming weekend.  That doesn’t guarantee that you’ll select the winner, even if that trend does continue.  There’s no way I would have picked Sister Ginger to be the one upsetting Rose to Gold.  But most of us know that eliminating some major factors in a race is all part of handicapping.  If you have a legitimate knock on a shipper, especially if that shipper will be the favorite, you have eliminated an important factor and you have a chance to get a reasonable price on a decent horse who might not be the first choice.              

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