Jon Stettin's Blog - AmWager

Jon Stettin's Blog

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  • Past the Wire     Tracking Tips Logo

    July 19th, 2018

    "What! It Can't Be"

    By: Jonathan Stettin


    It is easy to talk about the big wins and scores and at one point or another most, if not all, of us do it. I remember them all, but we know this game takes us through the highest highs and lowest lows, regardless of what part of it you are in. One thing I learned long ago is that you have to take the good with the bad. I remember the tough beats and I talk about them as much as the wins. Two that will always stand out are Swain for the Pick 6 and Pick 4 in the Breeders’ Cup Classic. I hit both with Awesome Again, but Swain meant so much more and how he lost still stings. Another one is needing Dancing House for the whole Breeders’ Cup Pick 6 pool, which was just north of a cool mil, the year my other single Beholder won the Distaff. Dancing House was a 20-1, or thereabouts, single and she did go on to win stakes, albeit on the dirt later but that didn’t help.

    Timing is so much in all aspects of life. I think the beat I will discuss today has as much to do with the timing of it, and how it occurred, as the monetary loss alone. The very large majority of my Saratoga memories are great, and the meet has been generous to me consistently over the years. This particular day, things did not fall my way although for a minute or two I believed they did, and thus I know how I would have felt had it played out that way.

    It was Travers day 2008. I was having a rough time and a rough meet. The life of a professional player has more ups and downs than that of a conventional lifestyle, and this was definitely a down period in every way imaginable on and off the track.

    Worry, who me? No way. I could right the ship with one big and bold correct move and that is precisely what I planned to do. I had done it many times before and I was going to do it again, and this was the day.

    I loved Mambo in Seattle in the Travers. He was the horse that was going to save the day. I was sure he would win, but my question was how to bet him to maximize the score, which I needed to do. Betting to win wouldn’t do it. The field was big which helped the exacta probable payoffs, but I was torn for who I liked to finish second. The pick 4, had a big pool. If I ended with Mambo in Seattle as a single the pay outs should be good, as the first three legs were pretty wide open, in my opinion. I thought if I could stay alive to Mambo, and I get a little lucky in a leg or two leading up to the Travers, I could really get back on track. Funny how this game is, I never even considered the prospect of him losing. I just needed to stay alive as he was going to win the Travers.

    I drove to Calder to bet and planned to watch from home, as I often did back then. I called my Dad and told him to watch and to root, but not to give me any results or to call me. I would be driving home during the races and wanted to watch without results. He said he won’t say anything if he called, but I told him that his voice would give it away. He knew what it meant to me.

    My budget, which pretty much was all there was between me and poverty, allowed for an $10 pick 4 with Mambo in Seattle the only single in the last leg the Travers. Just to help the cause a bit, I also bet two exactas with Mambo in Seattle over both Colonel John and Harlem Rocker. There was no reason to reverse either one of them. I knew the winner, I just had to have the right second horse.

    I made it home about two minutes to post for the Travers. I couldn’t watch it live as I had to watch the other three legs first. It was tough, but that was how I wanted it.

    Porte Bonheur at something like $25 was just the start I needed, and I felt I was already in a good spot after the first leg.

    Shakis at something like $10 or $12 kept me going but second place finisher War Monger who was my top choice would have been nicer. I was not complaining.

    After a $15 winner kept me alive and the Pick 3 paid around $1800 for two dollars I thought I was in good shape.

    I fast forwarded to the walking into the gate. I didn’t even pause for the will pays into the Pick 4. I had a $10 ticket alive to Mambo in Seattle and that was going to be sweet. I also had the two exactas which would ice the cake if I was right.

    The race ran just about how I thought it would through the early stages. Mambo in Seattle was pretty far back but by the time they hit the backstretch they were bunching up in front of him which is what you want if the pace is slow, which it was.

    On the turn Robbie Albarado let Mambo go and he made a big wide move into contention and my eyes were on him. He didn’t get a call yet from Tom Durkin but he looked like he would be right there to me.

    In the stretch I could tell it would be close, and the horses it was between were the ones I needed. Mambo was coming wide with Harlem Rocker and Colonel John. Colonel John and Garrett Gomez had saved all the ground and were running big. But, Robbie avoided a lot of bumping by being so wide and had the momentum. He was going to get up, he was coming, he made it and I knew it. Tom Durkin called it too close to call, but I knew I won. Robbie Albarado knew it too and pumped his fist. I figured it had to be about 75 or 80K for the pick 4 and maybe another 10 or 12K for the exacta.

    While watching the gallop out I called my Dad to celebrate. He answered very solemnly. I became concerned about him immediately and asked what was wrong.

    He said, “Did you see the race?”

    “Yes, we won,” I said.

    “No, he didn’t he got beat,” he replied.

    “What are you talking about I just watched it, he won, Albarado pumped his fist. Are you sure?”

    “He expletive lost,” he said.

    I fast forwarded to real time, "What! It can’t be!"

     

    The highest highs and lowest lows.

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  • Past the Wire     Tracking Tips Logo

    July 11th, 2018

    "The Belmont Derby"

    By: Jonathan Stettin


    This past Saturday we saw the most exciting edition of the Belmont Derby in the short history of the race.

    Martin Panza, of the New York Racing Association, had a great idea implementing this race on the New York circuit. He recognized a void and filled it, and then some, building a new super day and card, anchored by the new race. The Dwyer, and Suburban were moved to Belmont Derby day, a filly counterpart was added, the Belmont Oaks, along with the Belmont Sprint Championship. There is something for everyone and in keeping with the now trend in racing, another huge event was created.

    The Belmont Derby and Oaks were designed to attract International horses, and as such both are turf races for three-year-old horses over 1 ¼ mile. Prior to the Belmont Derby and Oaks, there were really no distance turf races of note for this category at this time of year.

    What Martin did was actually do away with the Jamaica Handicap, a race that had seen a fair share of changes including age, distance and surface. It was a Grade 1 despite the staggered history and the Belmont Derby kept that status. It was first run under the current name in 2014. In the first four years there has been one winner from overseas, Deauville in 2016. There has also been plenty of other contenders from across the Atlantic, so I would say we can call it a success on that front.

    In this year’s running we saw Catholic Boy give Analyze It a rematch from their odd race, just a little over a month ago in the Pennine Ridge. In that race, Catholic Boy decided he was a front runner, only to be passed in the stretch by favored and previously unbeaten Analyze It. Catholic Boy and rider Javier Castellano had to avoid Analyze It and Jose Ortiz who came in on them after making the lead, angle out and re-rally to out game them at the finish. It is rare for a horse on the lead to be passed and come back again. It shows heart, a will to win, and determination.

    In the Belmont Derby the pair were joined by Hunting Horn, a highly regarded runner from the powerhouse Aidan O’Brien stable, and Hawkish, the Penn Mile winner who also had his share of supporters. My Boy Jack and four others rounded out the field.

    The race unfolded differently, but with the same result. Analyze It went out for the lead but was overtaken by Catholic Boy, who again set the pace. Analyze It kept him in range and again overtook him to look like he was on his way to a revengeful victory. Catholic Boy would have none of it however, and this time without having to overcome trouble, re-rallied on the inside to out game Analyze It and beat him on the square again. It was a great race, one for the books, and proved beyond any doubt Catholic Boy is one gutsy racehorse.

    While the race was great and noteworthy, a rivalry it was not. Catholic Boy has handled Analyze It twice now, both times coming again to snatch victory from defeat. To be a true rivalry, Analyze It would have to beat Catholic Boy one of these days. Now we just have two great races. Professional media people and social media calling this a great rivalry, as some have done, is at best premature and at worst plain silly. Are we that desperate to generate false hype in our game? I don’t know, but we shouldn’t be, as we have had two recent Triple Crown winners and a slew, no pun intended, of other great horses in the last 10 years. There is no need to over hype things and distort the facts and history of this great sport.

    Frankly, there has been too much of that in our game. When we see things like Mind Your Biscuits, as nice a horse as he is, getting an NTRA vote for the top horse in the country, without a single win in North America, it reminds me of California Chrome getting a vote for top turf horse a few years ago in the Eclipse ballots. While so much of our game is subjective, a lot of it isn’t. Those votes display a lack of understanding of the game and discredit the voting process and any awards attached thereto. That’s just my opinion as a long-time student of the game. This is nothing new however, two of our most well-known horses, Secretariat and Ruffian, have so many falsehoods believed about them and some of the people around them. It makes one who knows the stories and what occurred and what didn’t occur, question the journalistic integrity of our sport. That is not a good place to be, but I guess if enough people believe the myths, it doesn’t matter. The worst part is, some historians and journalists are aware of these fables and just sit idly by and allow them to continue to exist. You know, just like tote companies don’t implement real time instant odds to correlate with when wagers are made, nobody cares.

    That said, we saw one heck of a race and the best Belmont Derby to date on Saturday.


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  • Past the Wire     Tracking Tips Logo

    June 27th, 2018

    "A Very Long List"

    By: Jonathan Stettin


    When AmWager asked me to write about either my favorite or the best filly or mare I have personally seen, I knew it would be difficult. The issue is, I have about 20 or more favorites or best fillies and mares I have been fortunate to see. I had to put my thinking cap on and as I love to do go back.

    Let me start by saying I am firmly in the camp that comparing horses from different eras is entirely subjective. Identifying greatness is not.

    When you talk about eras, you get into who did who beat and the quality of the competition. You also, as a horsemen or women, have to realize these animals are competitive and react to their competition. Much like an athlete who plays better when facing better athletes and plays down when the competition softens. This renders the different era discussion moot and 100% opinion.

    When it comes to the best ever in the filly and mare department, Ruffian stands out. This is something I discussed when on a debate the greats panel at the first Equestricon convention. There have been many greats, but she has some distinctions that are shared by none. The book I wrote about her was called “All 1’s” for a reason. She led at every call of all 10 races she finished. She was never headed and won at distances from 5 furlongs to a mile and a half. Most remarkably, in my opinion, is that she equaled or broke the track or stakes record in all 10 of her wins. She never raced without breaking or at least equaling the track or stakes record. You just can’t find that in any other horses’ past performances, and it is not something one could label subjective. It is as objective and factual as it gets.

    Ruffian had an advantage many horses don’t. Speed. She was fast and could carry that speed. You can’t beat what you can’t catch. She made her luck. Speed horses and even stalkers can do that. Closers, especially deep closers, do not have that advantage and are more pace dependent. When you have a horse, say like Zenyatta, who comes from way off the pace and strings together victories like she did, it is special considering she has to do it no matter what is happening up front.

    Once I began thinking about my favorite race gals and the best ones I have seen, I started remembering my earliest days and memories at the track. Days when the grandstands and clubhouses were full, and the atmospheres were like a super bowl or world series every weekend. Quickly, I realized it would take a book to talk about the great ones I saw. One did come to mind however. She was one of my first favorites and she could run with the best of them. I learned all about a swishing tail in the stretch from her, as I had never seen that before and didn’t know what it could mean. You don’t hear much about her today, probably because she like many great race mares didn’t turn out to be a great producer. But on the racetrack, you better be ready to race if she was in the gate.

    Shuvee was by the great Nashua out of the Nasrullah mare Levee. She was the second filly in history to win the Triple Tiara, the filly version of the Triple Crown in New York which consisted of The Acorn, The Mother Goose, and The Coaching Club American Oaks. I became a fan early on after seeing her win The Frizette. She had a habit of swishing her tail in the stretch, that caught my attention and I asked about it. Some horses, especially fillies or mares did it when they were tiring, some did it playfully, and some just had a nuance. After sweeping the filly Triple Crown I watched her win The Alabama and even then, as a young boy knew she was something special. I didn’t know the best was yet to come.

    A few short years later I was surprised to see her entered against the boys, in what was then one of the most prestigious and grueling races in the country, The Jockey Club Gold Cup, then run at two miles. An ambitious spot for any filly, but Shuvee came through swishing tail and all. That iced her champion older mare and she came back the next year to try The Jockey Club Gold Cup again. She made it back to back wins in the tough race and scored her second champion older mare title. She was inducted into the Racing hall of Fame in 1975 I believe, just 4 years after her second Gold Cup win.

    I will never forget rooting for that filly I bet to beat the colts with the swishing tale. I can still hear Fred Caposella calling her name. Ah Shuvee, one of the greats.

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  • Past the Wire     Tracking Tips Logo

    June 19th, 2018

    "Pace Makes the Race"

    By: Jonathan Stettin


    It is one of the oldest sayings around the racetrack. Anyone who has spent time around the game has heard it countless times. It is also one of the most accurate sayings connected to the Sport of Kings. We see examples of pace dictating the outcome of races every racing day, and it is often an overlooked handicapping factor by many.

    Just last weekend we saw pace eliminate one contender from a race, that in reality only had two horses who could win it, while at the same time it set up the other contender’s victory. In the Poker stakes at Belmont the two contenders were Oscar Performance and Ballagh Rocks. Oscar Performance did all his best racing on the front end and was coming off a layoff, which often sees a horse keen early and wanting to go on the engine. Ballagh Rocks did his best running from off the pace, and with a fair share of early speed signed on, he figured to get a set up favorable to his style. That is not what happened.

    The early pace was very fast in the Poker, and that likely kept Oscar Performance from setting it. He had run in his share of longer races and had not really been accustomed to those type fractions. Oddly Ballagh Rocks was up close to the fast pace early, which was not where he figured to be, and that effort left him empty in the stretch. He was going backward as opposed to forward when it counted. Oscar Performance capitalized and set a course record.

    When these things happen, I find it a good practice to go back in a day or two and revisit both the past performances and replay. I think we can easily identify what happened with the winner. The fast splits kept him a few lengths back and his class and talent kicked in when the pace setters were spent. Ballagh Rocks was a bit more difficult to figure out. Why was he so close, and didn’t the rider realize that would compromise his kick? The reason I do this is to help in future handicapping. There have been times where a horse wins and people can’t see it, and going back I find you can see it often enough to make a difference. Always, of course not, but often enough. It may not help with that race but it surely won’t hurt going forward.

    As for Ballagh Rocks, I think I can see the answer to the first question. He had been in some fast races in his career, and that pace scenario was not as foreign to him as it may have been to Oscar Performance. He was wired by an only speed the race before, so perhaps there was concern about them getting away from him and he was put in the game early. Did his rider know that would cost him the usual kick he had? Well, probably not, but it was the chance and risk he took to avoid what happened to him last out, and in some other races, where he just left himself too much to do. I think if the rider, and perhaps trainer, handicapped astutely then maybe they might have recognized the pace set up perfectly for him and this was not the day to worry about last time. Remember, trainers and riders are good at what they do most anyway, and in this case, you have two of the best. That said we are the best at what we do and look at things more objectively. At least we should.

    Sometimes you can anticipate these things and sometimes you have to decipher what happened after the fact. Gaining a good understanding of what happened and why can only help you going forward.

    Once you really master pace, race watching will become much more of an art. You’ll know when horses up close have no chance, which is a good feeling when you have backed a closer. You will know you are in good shape early when you played the speed and they are going well within his range. You would have known Justify was going to win the Belmont and Triple Crown a half mile into the race. At that point the race was over for the win, but on for second. The pace had as much to do with that than anything.

    Some people use pace projector tools to help with their pace analysis. I do not. My reasoning is two-fold. First, if I need anyone or anything to help me analyze the pace of a horserace, I am in trouble and it is time to hang up the tack. Second, there are intangibles that cannot be computer programmed. Certain riders like to go while others prefer to sit and wait. Some don’t like gunning from the rail. Some are astute in their handicapping and won’t send if there is other speed. Some don’t open the racing form at all. A computer won’t know these things, but a “pro” or shark will. Bias also plays a part. Some jockeys are aware of a bias and will ride to it and that can influence the pace. Replays can show a horse under wraps early you know can go faster, but computers won’t see that. I prefer my own pace evaluation to anything that can be programmed.

    A helpful hint in preparation for a wager is to project the pace as you see it and include who you think will be where at every call. The one who gets to the wire is the one I would play.

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    June 13th, 2018

    It Wasn't Only the Belmont

    By: Jonathan Stettin


    Most of the Thoroughbred community is talking about last Saturday’s Belmont Stakes. Not me, I see little point in looking in the rear view and prefer to ponder what’s ahead.

    Lost in the wake of Justify’s Belmont and Triple Crown, were four other equine performances that were quite noteworthy. We also saw a nice human performance as well. Edgar Prado showed he can still get it done, even from the 13 post, on the grass when he has the horse under him. Spring Quality has been steadily improving for a while now and seems to have finally found himself on the grass for Graham Motion. If he stays healthy he could have a say in the Saratoga grass stakes, which means we will likely see Edgar make some road trips to the Spa. Edgar first transitioned to New York when brought to the Spa by John Kimmel to ride first call for him. Richard Migliore was riding first call for Kimmel at the time, but got injured and that opened the door for Prado in New York. As they say, the rest is history.

    Abel Tasman showed she’s a serious player in the filly and mare division, by bouncing back from a dull return effort at Churchill Downs, where she never looked comfortable or on her game. She took the Ogden Phipps on the Belmont undercard with a strong early move, that at this point I think we can call patented, and made mincemeat out of the rest of the field. Regardless of where she runs next, and she has plenty of options…she’s a player.

    Monomoy Girl cut back from the mile and an eighth of the Kentucky Oaks to the one turn mile of the Acorn with no trouble at all. She is clearly the top of the three-year-old class for fillies. Her biggest asset seems to be her versatility. She can go on the lead, she can stalk and she can come from off the pace. Don’t forget she can also run on the grass, so she has plenty of options going forward. I am not sure how much further than a mile and an eighth she wants to go. So, the Coaching Club and more so the Alabama ,if she winds up there, may provide some interesting betting opportunities.

    Bee Jersey was huge in the Metropolitan Mile. He ran fast all the way. He took heat and pressure. He shook it off. He opened up after going fast. He dug in when Mind Your Biscuits, who is no slouch, and also ran big cams to him. He’s fast and a fighter and nobody should be surprised. He ran in Graded Stakes as a maiden in Dubai without Lasix before coming to the states with Steve Asmussen. I still don’t know how we got 3 or 4-1 on him when he broke his maiden at Churchill Downs. I forget, was that Christmas Eve? This is a racehorse and if you leave him alone, he just may go a little further than expected.

    Gronkowski ran a big race in the Belmont for Chad Brown who ran him for the first time. It was also his first start on dirt, and first with Lasix. He has many options going forward and also looks like he has upside in store for us. He can continue on dirt, which is obviously no issue, and he can also go on turf. Lohnro is a sire who I don’t think gets the respect or recognition he deserves, so probably doesn’t get the best of the mares either. I also don’t think his offspring are as distance limited as the experts do.

    There is a lot of racing to look forward to this summer and beyond. Saratoga and Del Mar are always great meets for both racing and wagering and this year both can be really stacked. The best part is this is without even factoring in our Triple Crown winner, who will spice things up wherever he lands, if he does indeed race again. Despite all that’s been said I have my reservations about that.

    The cards may suffer some leading up to the big summer meets as a result of the Triple Crown race cards, which is a problem the industry as a whole will have to address at some point unless we just evolve into a part time sport. The good news is those meets will be here soon enough and there is always a card or opportunity you can sniff out along the way.


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  • Past the Wire     Tracking Tips Logo

    June 7th, 2018

    Crystal Balls

    By: Jonathan Stettin


    I always find it curious when so called expert handicappers proclaim to know the winner of a race before it is even drawn. The Kentucky Derby is perhaps the biggest example of this, with people, including those who hold themselves out as experts with well informed and calculated opinions, lock in on a horse and proclaim them the winner. Frankly, even when they turn out to be right, is it handicapping or crystal ball magic, hence luck? I say it falls under the broken clock theory. We all know they are right twice a day.

    I am not talking about people having fun, rooting for a horse, or even advance wagering. I am talking about those who hold themselves out as knowledgeable, or experts, and then make bold premature predictions prior to certain relevant things being revealed. There are some things one must simply know, and factor in, for an opinion to be well informed. It borders on gibberish or irresponsibility to publish an opinion on the outcome of a horse race before certain key points are known. If deadlines or some other pressure force you to make early public and promoted opinions, so be it. However, I would preface any such opinion with subject to change based on factors not yet known, as opposed to so and so will win or can’t lose. I know of no monetary incentive to picking the winner three days in advance.

    A few years ago, I wrote a column called “Warning Shot Fired” where after watching Tonalist train in Florida and then win the Peter Pan I said I thought he was a serious threat to California Chrome in the upcoming Belmont Stakes. I did wind up betting him and he did win. I did not handicap the Belmont until the day before. You can read the article here….

    https://www.pastthewire.com/warning-shot-fired/

    Once read you will see the difference. You can spot a good one early, and you can think they fit in a race perfectly, but all this winner picking prematurely is comical. After the Florida Derby I immediately said Hofburg was the best horse in it and that everyone else would know that too by mid-year or late in the year barring injury. That’s different than picking him to win a race before you truly handicap it.

    The Belmont Stakes this year is a great example. The racing community waited anxiously for the past performances to come out. Some did not even wait for that before declaring their picks and even all the so called true contenders. Once the past performances came out, expert analysis and the expert selections began to appear. I’d read a horoscope as soon as I would read any of that. Be careful what you put in your computer of a brain, you never know when it will come out or how.

    We have Justify, the obvious bullseye in the race, drawing the rail. We have a fluctuating weather forecast that has taken a late turn for the worse. Even with the past performances, these factors should be cause for pause for anyone approaching this seriously and putting their money up.

    The rail can play fast and good hence the golden rail, or it can be deep and heavy and be a hindrance. This is true even on a dry track let alone a wet one. Muddy, sloppy, wet fast, sealed, and fast or even good are all different and can have different effects. We see somewhat less of the super speed highways on the big days lately as well. Wouldn’t a responsible well-informed opinion want to at least observe some of these things, at least through the Friday card or even through some of the Saturday earlier races, before proclaiming the Belmont winner?

    I have long known this to be a skill game and I think it should be approached, treated and tackled as such, if you have any hope of truly beating it. Yes, that can be done but not by crystal ball handicapping, even if it happens you are a broken clock and turn out right twice a day. There are no shortcuts and in the long run, and this is a marathon like the Belmont not a sprint. You get out what you put in, and that includes what you put in your head.

    Enjoy the weekend everyone and the run at history. If you want to know who I like in the Belmont……..just ask me……Friday evening at the earliest.

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    May 30, 2018

    Let's Go Back

    By: Jonathan Stettin


    What we are going to do here is go back. Back to a time when racing was much more mainstream. Racetracks were crowded during the week and every Saturday was like a holiday. The atmosphere was almost always electric, especially on the weekends.

    Why stop there? We are all thinking about the upcoming Belmont Stakes and the chance to see Justify possibly become the next Triple Crown winner. The undercard stakes are also exciting, and they include the Metropolitan Mile, long the staple of Memorial Day in the Sport of Kings, but now run on the Belmont undercard. This at first seemed foreign to me, but with the trend towards the “super cards” we might as well embrace the now. It won’t change anytime soon, and it is still The Met Mile.

    I’ve seen many things in the Sport of Kings. Four Triple Crown winners, countless champions, training feats that will never be repeated, ever. I’ve seen the ones who made it and the ones who could have but didn’t. I’ve seen and experienced the highest highs, and the lowest lows. One thing I will never ever forget is a 5-day span back in 1982. Racing was in full swing. Belmont was a crowded place. History was being made and a feat for the ages was about to take place.

    I was at Belmont Park that Memorial Day, like I had been many before that and after as well. I knew I was going to see a fast, and what I thought special horse, run in the Met Mile. I had been high on him since I watched him break his maiden under an old friend, jockey, Larry Saumell.

    He was a 150K yearling in the barn of Woody Stephens, one of the best ever, and particularly sharp with two-year old’s. There was no Lasix permitted in New York back then, but had there been there is a good chance Woody would not have used it. He was as hay, oats, and water as it got. On this day the horse would be ridden by his trainer’s go to rider Eddie Maple. What I did not know, and maybe nobody but Woody Stephens did, was that the racing world was about to see one of the greatest Metropolitan Miles and subsequently Belmont Stakes in the history of our great game.

    Both races have had their share of great and memorable editions. 1982 was special. Conquistador Cielo was a three-year old facing a full field of accomplished older horses in the Metropolitan Mile. The field lined up against him included fast older sprinters like Pass the Tab, Star Gallant, Always Run Lucky, and Maudlin. There were also accomplished older routers like Silver Buck, Thirty-Eight Paces, Globe, and Princelet. This would be no easy task on paper, but despite that, Conquistador Cielo was sent to post a 2-1 favorite.

    It was a gray day that Monday, but the looming rain held off. I bet everything I had to my name on Conquistador Cielo that Memorial Day. It wasn’t that much, but being everything I was worth, it felt like a lot. It was one of those races where you just did not feel like you could lose. You know the type.

    The track was not particularly fast that Monday. It did not matter to Conquistador Cielo. He broke well under Eddie Maple and after stalking the pace for a bit he simply annihilated the quality field of older horses, running the mile in 22.4, 45, 1.09, and finishing in 1.33. As we know, that is racehorse time on any track and he left the older horses far behind.

    Following the race, the talk was of what a great performance everyone saw, and of course the midsummer Derby as it was called, The Travers. Woody initially said the Belmont was not under consideration. That was no surprise as coming back in just 5 days off the fastest mile ever run at Belmont at the time seemed almost unheard of. Yes, Cielo ran the fastest mile ever at Belmont to date when he ran away with the Met.

    By Wednesday, just two days following the Metropolitan, something changed. Woody announced the colt had come out of his last race so good, he was going to go in the Belmont. Almost everyone was surprised.

    Again, this would be no walk in the park on paper. The Belmont field included that year’s Kentucky Derby winner, Gate Del Sol, and the Preakness winner Aloma’s Ruler. The always highly regarded Linkage was also in there. You had the Derby, Preakness and Met Mile winners in the Belmont.

    Conquistador Cielo was the morning line favorite off the record breaking Met at 3-1. I thought that was generous. My opinion was he was just too fast for these horses and the only question was the mile and a half. He was by Mr. Prospector, I wasn’t worried despite the distance.

    “They won’t beat what they can’t catch” I thought.

    The Friday before the race I was at Belmont. Eddie Maple went down on an Elliott Burch horse, maybe Snow Girl or something like that, I can’t recall. It was a nasty spill that landed Eddie in the hospital and prompted Woody to switch to Laffit Pincay for the Belmont. Laffit was one of my favorite riders to bet on.

     

    It was the day before the race and “no shot he loses” I thought to myself.

    It poured Friday night and Saturday. The track was sloppy. I still had the large part of my winnings from the Met. It wasn’t enough. I went to the second floor Clubhouse bar and found Frankie the shy. He was always there. I borrowed 5K. There was no pick 3’s or 4’s or pick 6’s back then. That resulted in a lot of money in the win pool, along with the exactas, and also made it hard to move the pool, especially on a big day like this. It still wasn’t enough.

    Prior to the race the odds surprised me. Conquistador Cielo was not getting the respect I thought he deserved. Linkage was a 2-1 favorite off mostly hype in my opinion and I thought he had no chance to beat Cielo. Conquistador Cielo was what looked like a cold 4-1 second choice, but I saw it as Christmas in June. The board exhilarated me, and he was only 4-1.

    My Dad was behind the mutual windows on the third floor in the Clubhouse working. He knew how I felt about the race. I went to his window and asked, “How much can we bet?”

    He bet $500 and said, “We’re partners.”

    I must have looked disappointed. He bet another $500 and said, “Is that better?”

    I replied, “A little,” and then bet all the Frankie shy money, along with my winnings from Monday. Everything.

    I let my Dad hold the tickets and said, “Now we’re partners.”

    That’s how we did it right until the end. I had no money for Sunday’s Daily Racing Form if I was wrong. Why would I need it anyway?

    My Dad was a Father, so he said, “Is that necessary? Hold your money, I bet for us.”

    “Don’t worry about it,” I said.

    He replied, “I hope we don’t need a graveyard, because if you’re wrong we’re buried.”

    Same four words, “Don’t worry about it.”

    I made my way down to the rail to try and watch. There was maybe 5 minutes to post. Despite the rain, I couldn’t find a good spot. I went back to the TV’s in the grandstand. I wasn’t feeling it. I walked briskly outside to the back park and the paddock mutual windows in the rain. Perfect, my own TV. Wet, but a good view. A close friend of mine, Anthony, was standing against the wall trying to keep dry until the race went off.

    “Who do you like?” he asked?

    “Cielo can’t lose,” I replied.

    He had a $50-win ticket on Aloma’s Ruler because our mutual friend, Vinnie Cotronio, had Cowboy Jack Kaenel’s book for a while and told him he would win.

    “Cancel that ticket unless you want to tear it up,” I said. He listened and put an extra $50 on Conquistador Cielo. Now he had $100 to win. The odds held at 4-1.

    What a difference a turn can make. Drawn wide, as he was in the Met, Cielo had to hustle heading for the clubhouse turn and Pincay kept him wide, similar to how Angel Cordero Jr. kept Bold Forbes out in the middle of the track. Going into that Clubhouse turn I thought he would be clear and he wasn’t. The thought of what if I was wrong set in as I heard track announcer, Marshall Cassidy, say something about a pace battle. Midway on the turn I remained concerned, but hope was not yet abandoned. By the time they came out of the turn and hit the backstretch I told Anthony who had grabbed me around the shoulder and was holding me tight, “We’re home!” He pulled tighter.

    Conquistador Cielo romped and splashed home in the slop running the 6th fastest Belmont, at the time, and the fastest ever over a sloppy track. He literally won off the screen. He carried 15 more pounds than he did when he won the Met Mile against older horses just 5 days earlier. He beat these horses as easily as he beat the others. He became only the 4th horse that century to win the Belmont Stakes by more than 10 lengths joining Man O War, Count Fleet, and Secretariat.

    It was an incredible performance by any standard, only amplified by the record breaking performance just 5 days prior. It is arguably the best 5 days run by any horse in our great game. Woody Stephens would go on to win the next 4 Belmont Stakes, setting an unprecedented and practically unbreakable record of 5 Belmonts in a row. Even in today’s age of the super trainer, and large majorities of high priced horses going to a handful of trainers, nobody can even approach this feat.

    The two races took a toll on Conquistador Cielo. They almost always do, no matter how easy they may look. He was able to win the Jim Dandy, while pointing for the Travers, but didn’t quite hold up. He was beaten in the Travers by Runaway Groom, which is another great story for another day. For now, let’s just look back on something we will likely never see repeated by another racehorse.

    Ah, what a great game when you’re right.

     

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    May 23, 2018

    The Triple Crown, The True Benchmark of Champions

    By: Jonathan Stettin


    The Triple Crown is truly a benchmark in all of sports. The status an equine athlete achieves by accomplishing this feat is rivaled by none in the sporting world. In every sport, every year, champions are crowned. The sport of kings is the same but different. We have our divisional champions, voted upon in a subjective format, but we have no guarantee we will have a Triple Crown winner. We will see a World Series, Super Bowl, and other winners and champions, year in and year out, but the Triple Crown remains the most elusive of prizes. We never know when we will witness a horse capable of actually getting it done. We only know if we are patient enough, we will get to see a true benchmark in the measurement of athletic greatness.

    For a horse to win the Triple Crown they have to bring it, and bring it hard, three times in a short span of time and each under very different circumstances. It is a testament to the trainer and jockey, but make no mistake, it is the Thoroughbred who does the running.

    The Kentucky Derby is among the most difficult horse races to win. It ranks right there with the Grand National, Melbourne Cup, and Prix De Arc Triomphe as a true test of will and stamina. It is not called the most exciting two minutes in all of sports for nothing. It is the race every horseman from every country has heard of and longs to win. It takes first place in fame and prestige, and stamps the winner as part of history. Three-year olds are asked to go a mile and a quarter, against the best of their age, for the first time. They do this in the mass confusion of a large screaming crowd, often in a larger field than they are used to. Traffic, rough riding, crowding and herding are all common place during that run for those roses.

    In the Preakness, the Kentucky Derby winner is asked to come back in two short weeks following a strong effort at a new distance. This time, the distance is a sixteenth of a mile shorter, but that means little with the quick turnaround. Add some fresh horses and factor the horses who may have had trouble in the Derby, and this test is not a whole lot easier than the last one. You have to bring it again.

    Ah the Belmont. The test of champions. Now one has to go a grueling mile and a half on three weeks rest, against tough battle-hardened foes, along with fresh new faces all gunning for you. Oh yeah, you’ll have to bring it again and then some. Arguably the Belmont is as tough to win as the Kentucky Derby and is truly a test of determination and stamina.

    The Triple Crown was never intended to be a walk in the park. It never has been. It has survived all the changes and evolving of the sport and never has lost an ounce of its significance. It remains the crowning and most difficult achievement in sports regardless of the changes or current state of the game. In that respect, it is timeless.

    I have been fortunate to see four Triple Crown winners in my lifetime thus far. Each was special, each historical, and each extremely difficult, as intended but doable. I have also seen many a fine horse step up to the plate, only to fall short for a variety of reasons, the most glaring of which and the common denominator, being how tough the series is to take down. There are many ways to not get it done up against only one way to do it; win all three races.

    Sir Barton in 1919, Gallant Fox in 1930, Omaha in 1935, War Admiral in 1937, Whirlaway in 1941, Count Fleet in 1943, Assault in 1946, Citation in 1948, Secretariat in 1973, Seattle Slew in 1977, Affirmed in 1978, and American Pharoah in 2015, were the ones great enough to get it done and make their way to the most elusive list in sports.

    When you look at the list you see a span of nearly a century. A lot changes in a century. We have seen changes in breeding, drug usage, training methods, and other variables, but the Triple Crown holds steadfast as the benchmark of which greatness is measured. That is no coincidence. Years ago, horses did it without Lasix and other modern drugs and remedies like lasers, acupuncture, massage, and shock wave therapy. Today you will likely never see a horse with a start in between the Derby and Preakness, or the Preakness and Belmont, but prior to Secretariat that was not rare at all. It was actually, almost if not common.

    We also see a glaring and almost unexplainable pattern of cycles. Our Triple Crown winners almost come in spurts followed by long droughts. We all know racing is a cyclical game, but the way we see our Triple Crown winners group together begs the question why. Coincidence, cycles, I don’t know but have long believed coincidences are for romance novels.

    I have been to Super Bowls and heavyweight championship fights ringside. I do not know of any atmosphere more electric than that of Belmont Park, as the horses near the starting gate for the Belmont Stakes, when one of those horses has a shot at earning their way on to that most precious and elusive list. The roar makes the huge facility tremble. You know the horses feel and sense it, and you can almost instinctively feel “the horse,” with so much on the line, somehow knows what is at stake. Anyone who has spent their fair share of time on the back stretch knows the really good ones know the difference between winning and losing.

    While the Triple Crown is never a guarantee, and always a mystery, one certainty is when a horse has a shot at it, you will see spectacular sports drama unfold. Real Quiet pulls away at the top of the stretch under what looked like wraps, only to be nailed at the wire by a whisker by Victory Gallop. Silver Charm, as tough and game as they come, takes the lead in the stretch, only to be gobbled up by the masterfully trained Touch Gold, who just a few yards back looked beaten. Smarty Jones opens up and takes it to the final strides only to be run down by Birdstone. Spectacular Bid, picked before the Belmont Stakes, to step on a safety pin. A safety pin! He already showed he was good enough to overcome the worst of trips in the Florida Derby, so we can’t blame that and have to go with the darned pin. War Emblem chose the most inopportune time to stumble out of the gate. I’ll Have Another looked poised only to have to scratch a day out. If you open the list to horses who lost the chance prior to the Belmont like Riva Ridge, Point Given and Afleet Alex, the many ways one can fall short increases and how totally on your game every time one has to be, is even more clear. Riva Ridge saved Meadow Stable, not the great Secretariat a year later, and if not for rain in Baltimore, a lot more people would know that.

    There are no excuses or second chances. There shouldn’t be for the benchmark of champions.

    When people say the series should be tweaked I laugh. That’s the equivalent of buying a vintage Ferrari and putting an aftermarket spoiler on it. We don’t fix what is not broke. I remember in the 70’s, people and turf writers opining the series was too easy and it needed to be made more difficult. There was no “LOL” back then, but we can collectively give a big “LOL” now. We can do the same to those who said it was too difficult prior to American Pharoah coming along and reminding those who chose to ignore the game’s great history, that the “right horse” can do it.

    If all goes right, Justify will look to add to his most impressive resume in a little over two weeks in Belmont, New York. This horse has already stamped himself in history by winning the Kentucky Derby and knocking off the almost ancient Apollo curse of no horse winning the Run for the Roses without racing at two years old. He showed it was no fluke by digging down deep and taking the Preakness to put himself in line to get his shot at going on one of two lists, both great in and of themselves, but only one the true benchmark of the best of the best. The Triple Crown.

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    May 17, 2018

    Foregone Conclusions

    By: Jonathan Stettin


    I’ve never been one to believe in free squares in horse racing. As far as I’m concerned there are no freebies and I’ve yet to see any horse race run on paper, and I have seen many.

    On Saturday, if all goes according to plan, Justify will attempt to remain undefeated by winning the Preakness. For many, it is a foregone conclusion he’ll win and head to New York for the test of champions, The Belmont Stakes, trying to become a Triple Crown winner. He certainly looks the part, and while it is a pretty good possibility he handles his foes on Saturday, again they don’t run races on paper.

    What few realize, is that if you can beat a horse like Justify only once in a while, you can get yourself paid handsomely and erase a lot of losses. I’m not saying bet against him, if that is where you land, but thinking any horse can’t lose is a mistake, proven time and time again by the sport’s very history.

    There are all kinds of statistics about horses who won in Louisville coming back in two weeks and trying to do it again. You have stats on those who won in the slop or mud, who worked and who didn’t work between races and more. Most of you already know I throw all that out the window as every race, crop and horse are different.

    We all saw Justify favor his left hind leg following his Kentucky Derby triumph. Whatever that was seems to have passed and he should be right as dodgers when he is loaded in the gate Saturday. His main rival appears to be Good Magic, who had every chance to get to him in the Derby but couldn’t. The main questions are who goes forward, or at least maintains their form, and whether any of the other horses are good enough to make serious noise in Baltimore.

    With Bob Baffert and Chad Brown quarterbacking the big two, it is likely both show up and run their race. Given that scenario Good Magic will be up against it to turn the tables. The interesting new comer to the party is Tenfold. This colt is a bit more late-developing than the big two, but he is on the improve and figures to appreciate the wet track he will see on Saturday.

    Obviously Tenfold will have to take a huge step forward to compete for the win. He may also need some regression from one or both of the big two. While a forward move looks very possible, the latter does not.

    Regardless of what happens Saturday, it is always good for the game to have a horse shooting for the Triple Crown. Between that and the hype Justify has always carried around, his odds are likely to be even shorter than they should, and they warrant being pretty short. He probably should be 2-5 but will likely be less than that.

    The race hasn’t been drawn as of this writing, so my final work is not done. What I do know is this: we’ve discussed the winner here and there are no foregone conclusions in the Sport of Kings.

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    May 10, 2018

    Betting It Right 101

    By: Jonathan Stettin


    Last Saturday we saw a memorable and historic Kentucky Derby. Justify went in not only as the favorite, but also as one of the most hyped horses in recent memory. In addition to winning one of the toughest races to capture, he had to take down the dreaded Apollo curse which dated back to the 1800’s. Justify delivered on all fronts, and as I have written for the past few years, all the so-called Kentucky Derby rules and do’s and don’ts mean absolutely nothing. They all go down, and none should influence your wagering strategies.

    I always say there is NO VALUE IN A LOSING bet. Despite this being a factual statement, many people claimed they liked Justify, but wouldn’t bet the favorite. I apologize for being redundant, as I have also said this for years, but there is always value to be had on the first Saturday in May, regardless of who you like and who wins. If you like the chalk or a bomb, if you are right and bet smart, you will get paid.

    Betting smart, or money management, is as important to success in this game as handicapping. I know plenty of good handicappers who are terrible bettors and thus have almost no chance of beating the game. Ticket structuring falls under the smart betting or money management heading. I did see a lot of great plays and expertly structured tickets on the Derby Saturday, and even though the favorite won, all these people were handsomely rewarded. They were not scared or run off from their choice because he happened to be favored, and I’d wager most of these people would have bet a longshot had that been where they landed the same way. The fiddle is out for all the players who “liked Justify but wouldn’t take 3-1.” You don’t get paid betting against your opinion.

    The superfecta in the Kentucky Derby is almost always a great bet. The large field and lack of the 10-cent minimum practically guarantee with the large pool you will get paid if you’re right. People have a tendency to get lured into the multi-race wagers, but on Derby day the superfecta is a smart play.

    I have a way I approach the superfecta. I like to turn the superfecta into an exacta. Let’s say I like the #1 to win the race. I will look at the horses I think can or are likely to run second and I will play the superfecta accordingly. If the horses I like for second are the say #2, #3, and #4, I’ll play 1 with 2,3,4 with all with all. This assures me that if I am right about the exacta, I am absolutely hitting the superfecta. Additionally, it affords the opportunity of having a very high-priced bomb crash the number in the third or fourth slot. I am talking the type of horse it would be extremely difficult to get to handicapping alone. You don’t need many of these to really turn a day or meet around.

    If you think about it logically, can you really handicap who will run third or fourth? Racing is difficult when everyone is all in, but in the third or fourth slots, you have riders easing up, tired horse pulling up, horses running on past tiring ones and many other intangibles making for, shall we say, some fluky results. I like to eliminate that risk and as aforementioned turn it into an exacta. As a kill-shot player, I will usually only use my horse in the win slot, and usually also play the exacta and triple the same way. If I’m right, I get it all. On occasion, when the situation warrants, I might also use my horse in the second or third slot in the supers, but generally that is when the horse is a very generous price.

    On some occasions, I may take a horse or two out of the all slot. This is dangerous, and I realize it can sting once in a while, but if a horse or two just look like a waste of resources to include, I will gamble and cut them off the play.

    For the sake of discussion let’s say Justify waltzes to Maryland to face a small field he seems to have overmatched. You handicap the race and you feel he is the winner. Your dilemma is he is 1-5 or thereabouts. Many, when faced with this scenario, will bet a higher priced horse just because they are a higher price. I don’t bet against my opinion. My options would be to pass, or to create some value. I might bet a cold exacta, or if the other races in any multi race sequences have vulnerable favorites, go after them with my horse singled. This all goes back to money management. I think, fundamentally you don’t bet against who you think the winner is.

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