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.
May 17, 2018
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.
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.
May 2, 2018
The Right Mindset
By: Jonathan Stettin
If you follow or bet on horse racing than in the weeks leading up to the Kentucky Derby, you are likely to hear a lot of opinions, rules, methods, statistics and angles. As we are now in the final days leading up to the big show, and with the assistance of social media, these comments reach a fever pitch. My suggestion would be not to pay too much attention to any of them. You’ve heard the old saying “on any given Sunday,” well you can tweak that to on any given first Saturday in May. I saw an article, I only skimmed this morning, going into fine detail on how Mendelssohn can’t win on Saturday because Arazi lost the Kentucky Derby and only Bold Forbes and Canonero won the race after prepping abroad. I guess all the people who cashed on those two runners should return their winnings.
I have said it before and will repeat it here, every year, crop, field, pace scenario, draw, trip, and horse are different. There are no rules that will land you on the winner. Good handicapping, observatory skills, and some luck, are all that can do that. Sure, some statistics are relevant, but they are merely a guideline and history. The future is what handicapping a race is about and if you’re right what is in the rearview couldn’t mean less.
You’ll also likely see there are an abundance of experts with definitive and adamant opinions. Many before the race is even drawn or even weeks ahead. Imagine if picking the winner of one of the most difficult races to handicap with probably the most intangibles in the US was that easy. Nonetheless they do it with conviction.
While I prepare for the Derby year-round, as it is always an opportunity for a major score, and that is what I look and live for, I usually don’t finalize my selection or selections until race day. That is what works for me and how I do it.
As for all the chatter out there, I try not to listen to any of it. If you have someone who has an opinion you respect, by all means I would encourage discussing the race with them. I would not encourage letting all the voices get into your head. Many of them don’t even bet, or possibly bet on only the Derby and maybe $2. There is nothing wrong with that and we welcome them and their $2 into the pool, but experts, hardly. That takes years, several of them actually, playing and not with monopoly money.
The Kentucky Derby and supporting card is one of what I call “the days” where you can really go all in and do some damage. The pools are huge, and a lot of that money is, shall we say, recreational and uneducated. That is where you can gain your edge and why “the days” are where I like to focus. This is when you fire that kill-shot, or at least I do. I try and go in with no pre-conceived bias, and ready and willing to adjust any opinion that creeped in to my actual handicapping of the race. I believe that is the right mindset to have to win.
The last thought I’ll leave you with this week is this...there is always value in the Derby. You just have to find or create it. If you like a shorter priced horse, you can always play that horse in exactas, triples or superfectas and get that value you seek. You can single the horse in a multi-race wager or wagers. Remember, there is no value whatsoever in a losing bet. That said if you like a price, that is always nice. Have no fear.
April 18, 2018
Preparing for the First Saturday in May
By: Jonathan Stettin
While most of us start getting ready for the Kentucky Derby the year before as we watch the two-year olds compete, it really isn’t until the final prep races are run that we can get serious and begin forming definitive opinions. I’ve always found it somewhat comical when people lock into a “Derby horse” weeks and months before the race. There is always value in the Kentucky Derby, and last I checked you do not get paid more by making your selection early. Advance wagering is fun, but rarely do I see it as a smart bet. To each their own.
I try and go into the Kentucky Derby without any bias or sentiment. I like to handicap the race after it is drawn and when I know or have at least a good idea about the weather. That said, the Kentucky Derby is part of a stakes filled card with an abundance of opportunities so being as prepared as you can be in advance is probably wise. The Derby also follows Oaks day which is similar in opportunities so that is an awful lot of handicapping crammed into two days. No complaints as this is the life I’ve chosen, but there are things I do now which help me come the big Friday and Saturday.
With all the technology and tools at our disposal it is pretty easy to get a head start on your homework. This is what I do:
I get the advance past performances.
I get the Thoro-Graph numbers for all the qualified horses.
And last but not least I begin watching replays.
There are a lot of replays to watch. I find it very beneficial to watch replays a few times, and even more importantly a few days or weeks after the race was run. When you watch a race live, or even later that day or the next day, one can have a tendency to get caught up in the hype, or even your own wagers. A week or two down the road it is easier to be more objective and have more focus and clarity.
Replays can give you a big edge, especially if you know what to look for and how to spot it. Remember almost everyone is focused on the lead horse or winner when watching a replay.
For example, in the Florida Derby Audible received all the raves and accolades. I watched the race with good friend and knowledgeable horseman, Ramiro Ramirez, who is an internal representative of Fasig Tipton. After the race while everyone was applauding Audible, he and I looked at one another and commented how impressive the runner up (Hofburg) was and how he had covered more ground while spotting a lot of experience to the winner. If you watch his race again, you’ll also see he was green and ducking in and out and still finished good and never stopped trying. Audible will be a significantly shorter price than Hofburg when they run for the roses. Your opinion of the replay will tell you if he is worth it. Again your opinion, not mine or anyone else’s. We all watch the same races but don’t see the same things. If you have a good eye and opinion use it to get an edge.
I loved Animal Kingdom the year he won the Derby at a healthy price. I singled him in all the multi-race bets, and bet him to win and on top in the triple. I still say that triple came back way too short, and although I hit the Oaks, Woodford and Derby pick 3, had St John’s River won the Oaks I would have just about finished counting the money. I hit everything and have no complaints but suspect there were some serious bettors on him along with me. How do you love and single a horse who has never run on dirt is a legit question. The answer is easy. It was his replays and pedigree. Being by Leroidesanimeaux it figured Animal Kingdom would run on anything and his pre-Derby Work on dirt confirmed that. What brought him to my eye initially was his race at Turfway Park prior to the Derby. Animal Kingdom weaved in and out of horses making left and right turns on the dime, showing a lot of agility. That kind of toughness and talent bodes well in Louisville.
For a more recent example of replays you can look at My Boy Jack. He is somewhat forgotten in this field despite people projecting a fast-contested pace and his being a closer. When I look at his replays I see a ridiculously wide trip, particularly stretch run in the Louisiana Derby that cost him a lot more ground than he was beaten. In the Lexington he was wide again but more importantly perhaps is he had to zig and zag through some traffic and was able to do so and go wide and still get up.
While I am a long way from finished with my homework for the first Saturday in May I am going in with a head start. Now you have one as well. We often see big price horses closing to get into the exotics in the Kentucky Derby. Every once in a while, they win a la Giacomo. You don’t need many like Giacomo to make a difference.
Replays, there is a lot on them.
April 11, 2018
Make the Right Moves
By: Jonathan Stettin
Jockeys and their agents are faced with tough decisions every day. In a profession where, for the most part you’re rewarded for winning and blanked for losing, the pressure is always on to ride the best horse in each race that you can. Sometimes the decision is made for you by a trainer or even owner, but if you’ve worked your way up to be a top rider, it will often be your call which horse you ride.
Sometimes being on the right horse isn’t as simple as just knowing who gives you your best chance. Calls on horses are given out in advance and part of being a good agent is knowing which horses are running back in which races. Agents often have to know this before the entries are drawn. They work off the condition book and have to maintain close ties with the outfits you ride for.
This is horse racing however, and we all know things change quickly. A horse not expected to enter a race, can be entered leaving a rider with two calls or commitments. One outfit is not going to be happy with your decision. When a rider takes a call on a horse, and subsequently another horse enters the same race and he abandons the first call, it’s called spinning. The initial trainer got “spun” in favor of the perceived better mount. Agents who do this frequently get a reputation and it can come back to bite you.
Riding the best horse in a particular race, can also be compromised by not only prior commitments but also by relationships. If you are riding a lot for a barn, especially a barn who has a lot of live horses, you may at times ride a horse for that barn which may not be your best chance at a win. However, you don’t want to jeopardize future live mounts from that outfit. It is a constant balance and juggling act and it often can be difficult to keep everyone happy. That’s the top end of the spectrum. The other end is made up of new riders, or riders in less demand, who are happy to ride anything and just get their name in the program. That’s how it all usually starts.
We often see in past performances where a horse is ridden by one rider, who has had success on them or for the barn, and inexplicably they are named on another mount, or maybe not even riding in the race. Some of what I described above can lead to those situations and you can’t see that in the past performances. Accordingly, it is likely best not to read that much into it. Remain cognizant there could be many legit reasons is my suggestion.
If there is one race where all the protocols sort of go by the wayside, in my experience it is the race coveted by all jockeys, the Kentucky Derby. Riders and agents are almost always looking for that Kentucky Derby mount. International riding star Ryan Moore recently stated the Kentucky Derby is on his bucket list. He will likely ride Mendelssohn on the first Saturday in May as opposed to staying in England and riding Saxon Warrior. I wish we could wager on where Ryan will be Derby Day. The Derby is the Derby. As such loyalties and prior commitments are usually given a pass, almost everyone understands you want to take your best shot. Most trainers will forgive a rider jumping ships in the Run for the Roses.
This year’s Kentucky Derby has had a fair share of musical jockeys already. Bolt d’ Oro’s trainer Mick Ruis canned the regular rider Cory Nakatani following a post workout decision and disagreement. He was replaced by Javier Castellano, who despite all his success still seeks that first elusive Derby win. Javier rode Bolt d’ Oro to a controversial second place finish to McKinzie, in which he was awarded the win via disqualification. He came back to chase the highly regarded and much hyped Justify, but could not really make him sweat. Javier stated he was happy with how his horse ran as he was chasing the best horse in the country. After that statement, which was almost a concession, it should have come as no surprise Javier, a jockey with options took himself off Bolt d’ Oro. He opted for Audible, a popular winner of the Holy Bull and Florida Derby, for the powerhouse barn of Todd Pletcher. Audible became open after John Velazquez, his rider in both the Holy Bull and Florida Derby, made a decision to ride recent Wood Memorial winner Vino Rosso in the Kentucky Derby. This move by Johnny V surprised a lot of people, but not me. Between Audible and Vino Rosso, I would have chosen Vino Rosso myself. Being a good agent, means being a good handicapper and the Derby is at a mile and a quarter. At that distance Vino Rosso looks better in my opinion.
All that shuffling left Bolt d’ Oro open. Victor Espinoza got the call to pilot him in Louisville and it will be the first time he rides him in a race. If not for Javier’s defection, Victor would have probably watched the Derby on TV. Now he is on a horse a lot of people like.
Some people think Javier made his decision based on loyalty to Todd Pletcher and the fact he rides for him. Don’t buy it. If he thought Bolt d’ Oro was the winner, or his best option, that’s where his weight would be come Derby Day. Todd would understand. The Derby is the Derby.
Mike Smith was in the spot most riders would envy. He rode two top prospects in McKinzie and Justify. Had McKinzie not been injured, he would have had a tough choice. He made one last year when he rode Arrogate in the Breeders’ Cup Classic and gave up the mount on West Coast, knowing West Coast would be running in stakes in 2018. It’s tough to be on top and stay there.
You have to make the right moves. Sometimes that is easier said than done. The great Bill Shoemaker was offered the mount on Northern Dancer in the Kentucky Derby by the great trainer Horatio Luro. Shoe refused and rode favorite Hill Rise. The two colts battled down the stretch and Northern Dancer, under Bill Hartack, got the best of Shoemaker and Hill Rise by a long neck. We don’t always get it right. Go with your handicapping, instincts, and gut. I always do. Don’t read into the above as any tells on who I like in the Derby this year. I won’t know that until I handicap the race. If you want to know who I like come the first Saturday in May, just find me and ask. It won’t be that hard.