There are varied opinions across the racing community on who to bet in the Breeders' Cup races starting with Friday's Marathon and ending with Saturday's Classic. The ongoing debate regarding Santa Anita's synthetic Pro-Ride surface leaves even the experts reeling in the head game that is near-dirt handicapping.
Here are some things I've learned in the past few weeks about Pro-Ride:
1. Speed Holds - Except when it doesn't
Brad Free's excellent "Changing Pro-Ride middles picture" column in the DRF Breeders' Cup Advance offers some excellent statistical information, including:
- 6 of 8 Pro-Ride races in the 2008 BC were won by a top three choice.
- More than half the sprints (46 of 84) at the Fall meet have been won by horses within two lengths of the lead at first call.
- Free goes on to advise that in ROUTE races speed is holding well. (At least in the latter half of the meet.)
However, my blogging buddy Equispace ran his own study of the 2008 Breeders' Cup that dictated a preference to closers:
F&M Sprint: Ventura, Post 12, First Call: 11 (Closer)
Juvenile Fillies: Stardom Bound, Post 10, First Call: 12 (Closer)
Ladies Classic: Zenyatta, Post 1, First Call: 8 (Closer)
Marathon: Muhannak (Ire), Post 5, First Call: 4 (Stalker)
Dirt Mile: Albertus Maximus, Post 7, First Call: 10 (Closer)
Juvenile: Midshipman, Post 11, First Call: 2 (Stalker)
Sprint: Midnight Lute, Post 4, First Call: 8 (Closer)
Classic: Raven's Pass, Post 8, First Call: 10 (Closer)
VERDICT? Well, I guess they're both right. Free's numbers are correct. Spaceman's numbers are correct. Statistically speaking, pace-pressing types are successful at Santa Anita but maybe that doesn't matter in events with horses of this quality.
2. Turfers have advantage over dirt horses on synthetics. Don't they?
Steven Crist is offering up "Five Solid Spots To Beat Chalk" as he reviews the Saturday card. However, his view of the Classic offers the following:
"The American horses with synthetic-track experience look evenly matched on their best days without having shown anything special, so it might be a good spot to try those trying the surface for the first time. It would be heartening to see the good dirt 3-year-olds Summer Bird and Quality Road run well, but recent history suggests they're less likely to handle the surface than grass runners such as Twice Over, Rip Van Winkle, and Gio Ponti."
Let's all nod our heads in agreement. Turf to poly - that's the angle right?
However - Some two weeks ago, Jeremy Plonk offered up an outstanding piece debunking the widely held thought that turf-to-poly is an advantage. Decrees Plonk, "After a study of more than 7,300 all-weather surface starters from 60 of the most well-known barns throughout North America, I have found absolutely no factual proof that horses who move from turf racing to all-weather surface racing are any better off than those who switch from the dirt."
VERDICT: Plonk's numbers are satisfying and one has to respect the time put into the study. However, if even renowned handicappers such as Crist see merit of the turf-to-poly then are the statistics just damned lies?
3. Racing on Pro-Ride will make lesser horses better - or make better horses worse?
Jay Cronley's humourous look at handicapping the #BC09 offers thanks that the turf races are still on turf while cautiously admitting, "Lots of good horses with short program odds are running on synthetics for the first time. Lots of good horses with short program odds are off two-month layoffs." To be fair, Cronley doesn't flat out state against playing the favourites in his piece, but those that read him often (as i do - and he's brilliant) know he's not a fan of the plastic.
Bill Finley reviews the card race-by-race but after clearly identifying Mastery as class of the field in the opening Marathon, Finley hedges just words later by writing, "Father Time finished behind Mastery in each of his past two starts but has the advantage of having won over a synthetic surface."
VERDICT: The crux of what I'm trying to point out with this post is that we're really all just guessing as to how a horse is going to race on the Pro-Ride surface. Not even the experts can come to a consensus.
Trainer Bob Baffert tossed his hat into the ring this week offering up the following comments on the Pro-Ride surface, "The track's a year older and they're keeping a lot of water on it. It's very fair at the moment and it's playing a bit like dirt, so that's good. It's certainly different to last year, so I think the Americans will have a good chance. Last year there was a real anti-speed bias, but it's not the same now. The dirt horses will have a better chance than they did last year."
Great. So after spending a week marking up my DRF to highlight all the horses with form and breeding geared to synthetics, I can toss it all out the window as Pro-Ride is now dirt. It's enough to make a grown man cry.
As a Woodbine homer, I can personally attest to watching our own polytrack speed up during the course of the card. Some Wednesday nights, by the third race lone speed would be absolutely deadly - near impossible to catch.
As well, I've spent weekends at Woodbine where jockeys steered their steeds home more than six-wide through the stretch just to avoid a dead rail, only to see the course change moods, and form, before the tenth and final race and start welcoming rail huggers.
So, what can be done about wagering on the temperamental synthetic surface? I'll offer the advice I hope I can follow myself:
1. Bet on Form holding - regardless of the surface. Grade/Group One wins must be respected.
2. Respect the closers. Is there a race on the card that's crying for pace to chase?
3. A fresh horse should have an advantage. In general, the European horses are more lightly raced and will be coming into these races fresh. That, more so than turf-to-poly, is the angle that wins at this time of year.
My goal over the two cards will be to bet exactors. With abundant TV coverage, the ability to observe the horses in the paddock will be key. Further, track trends can change. An exactor bet can factor in the mood of the course. Multi-race tickets deny the paddock-watchers their built-in advantage and tickets will get expensive as it is difficult to toss out horses sight unseen.
To offer up picks following the above advice seems frivolous. However, I'll do a bit of name-dropping to have something to hang my hat on when "Away They Go..."
1. Mastery (GB) - Group One winner is the class of the field.
2. Nite Lite - Lightly raced Pletcher entrant picks his spots well.
3. Cloudy's Knight - Another lightly raced horse and a G1 win in his pocket
Juvenile Fillies Turf
1. Lillie Langtry - on paper (and on turf) looks likely.
2. Jungle Tale - Proven over a tough Woodbine turf course.
1. Connie and Michael - What a wonderful debut
2. Blind Luck - Luck had nothing to go with that last effort
Filly and Mare Turf
1. Midday - three-year-old has bested older horses in a Group 1 previously. Victory in the Goodwood over Rainbow View was excellent. RV was 2nd in the G1 EP Taylor at Woodbine. She fits.
Filly and Mare Sprint
1. Ventura - Two wins and two losses this year. The losses are by a nose and a head. She is a fantastic horse. The Woodbine Mile win was visually stunning.
2. Seventh Street - Must respect multiple Grade 1 winner from the Godolphin Stable. Rajeeeeeev in the irons a bonus.
There's only one horse I want to see win this race. Some races you just sit back and enjoy the ride. Go get 'em Rob Landry!
No doubt there will be several articles in the weeks ahead tearing apart the statistics of the 2009 Breeders' Cup. Those who are looking forward to a return to dirt at Churchill in 2010 best not forget that the same handicapping nightmares will still exist. Just in the opposite direction. Can poly-based horses win on the dirt? Can European turfers fare as well on CD dirt as they do on SA Pro-Ride? Be careful what you wish for handicappers!
Enjoy your 2009 Breeders Cup. I'll be back with more thoughts, picks and fun on Saturday.