Jessica Chapel / Railbird

Classic Santa AnitaMucho Macho ManWise DanClassic GarlandDeclaration of WarWise DanVerrazano

Wise Dan’s Return

The Horse of the Year is set to make his first start of 2014 today, and:

“If he is going to be vulnerable, this is it because the others that are in there have been running,” [trainer Charlie] LoPresti said.

True, but he’s also a returning champion. The odds are good that he’ll win. In 2010, I found that returning champions beat the winning favorites average by a significant margin when they made their first starts of a new season.

The stats for returning champions are now updated through 2012: You can view the numbers and complete spreadsheet via Raceday 360. There are a couple of changes in this year’s version: I restricted the data to only starts made in North American races with wagering (horses who returned in non-wagering exhibition races and foreign races were excluded, as were steeplechase champions). I also broke out the numbers by division and decade this year, as well as by class, which revealed a few interesting tidbits.

One thing I left out of the R360 post, but wanted to make note of, is that all champions, not only the favored, won or finished in the money in 186 out of 228 races (or 82% of starts). Be sure to include them in your exotics.

The original data, including all champions named from 1971-2012, and not only those who returned to race, can be downloaded as an Excel file.

4/12/14 Update: And Wise Dan wins the Maker’s 46 Mile at Keeneland. Here’s the returning Horse of the Year chart, updated:

That brings the returning HOTY record to 18 wins from 23 starts (18 wins from 22 favored), for a total payout of $49.10 on $46 bet.

The CC-BB Connection

Dick Jerardi on this year’s likely Kentucky Derby favorite:

Go back six years. Other than the experience factor (it’s hard to believe that California Chrome has run 10 times …), I see Big Brown all over again, a really good horse against a far less talented and inconsistent group.

The same thought has crossed my mind. For a refresher, here’s how the 2008 Kentucky Derby field stacked up, Beyer speed figure-wise, in their final two preps and then in the Derby (listed below in order of finish):

Big Brown’s double 106-106 stood out then, and stands out now, much as California Chrome’s 107-108 Beyers do this year:

For comparison, I included the TimeformUS figures for the last two races of the top eight Kentucky Derby points leaders. On that scale, California Chrome is not the topper to date, but his figures are both consistent and easily put him within range of the “typical” TimeformUS winning Derby figure of 115. If you were only handicapping the Derby with ratings, California Chrome looks like a worthy favorite whichever numbers you use. But Brian Nadeau has a few reasons for why you might want to consider some other factors.

For the Last Time

Andrew Beyer, writing today:

When the Blue Grass Stakes is run at Keeneland on Saturday, it is unlikely to produce the next Kentucky Derby winner. Though it was once the most important 3-year-old prep race, it became irrelevant after Keeneland replaced its dirt track with a synthetic surface. None of the seven horses who captured the Blue Grass on Polytrack proceeded to win on Churchill Downs’s dirt; most ran dismally.

Jeff Scott, writing on Monday:

Some people think this race has lost relevance since it started being run on Polytrack in 2007. The fact is, though, that the Blue Grass has produced by far the most Kentucky Derby starters (26) of the five Grade 1 Derby preps since Polytrack has been in place. The Arkansas Derby is next with 20, followed by the Santa Anita Derby (17), Florida Derby (16) and Wood Memorial (14). Only the Arkansas Derby has had more Derby starters hit the board (four) than the Blue Grass (three).

Arty Aqueduct

Last weekend, I visited Aqueduct for the first time since leaving New York City back in 2010, and I wasn’t sure what to expect. Jerry Bossert reported abysmal conditions at the track earlier this year. NYRA board members complained about grime and birds in the Equestris buffet. Even though Left at the Gate defended the place, with photos that made it look pretty good, I still wondered if I might find a crumbling, neglected clubhouse filled with flocks of pigeon toughs menacing degenerates for their hot dogs, the decay and disorder made all the more pronounced by the gleaming casino floor a short walk away.

But the track was actually in much better shape than I remembered or anticipated, a happy surprise, and mostly clean.* The new Longshots bar and simulcasting center was open and bustling on Saturday, the fresh paint throughout was nice, and the Aqueduct Murals were a real delight:

*The exception was the unrenovated second floor outdoor seating, where fans were crammed into the last section past the finish line. Trash strewn, unpleasant, and with poor sightlines to the paddock and track, it was just a downer spending any time out there. I was disappointed to realize it and the apron are now the only accessible outdoor space. (So, views like this from my old favorite spot in the third floor box seat area are no more.)

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With Wicked Strong’s Wood win, Boston gets a Kentucky Derby connection. The colt, named in honor of the community spirit that pervaded the city after the 2013 Boston Marathon attack, runs for Massachusetts-based Centennial Farms, and a portion of his earnings go to The One Fund. He earned a Beyer speed figure of 104 for the Wood, a new career high by 17 points. TimeformUS also gave him a new career topper of 117, 25 points above his previous best on their scale, and four points higher than what they gave California Chrome for winning the Santa Anita Derby. He was given a Beyer of 107 for his victory in that race. Charts and replays for both, and the updated Kentucky Derby leaderboard, are available via the 2014 prep schedule spreadsheet.

Coming Clean

You’ve probably read Andrew Cohen’s “The Ugly Truth About Horse Racing” by now. As I said on Twitter, it’s a call to conscience for all of us in racing to acknowledge the dark side of our game. “Must admit my first reaction was to get defensive,” @loomsboldy replied, “but the more I thought about it …”

This is what I thought about it:

It made me feel real shame for being silent. I saw a horse get milkshaked, and win. I didn’t tell anyone.

I saw a vet inject a horse a few hours before a race with a substance that was not an allowed raceday drug.

I saw a horse so hobbled by joint deterioration it hurt to watch it walk, but with bute, it could pass a raceday vet check.

In each instance, I believed that it was not my business or my place to say something. I was wrong.

The excuses I made then and after? Cohen stripped them away.

There’s much more I’d like to say about the recent New York Times-PETA exposé, but for now, I’ll start by admitting my complicity as a “good” racing person who didn’t speak up when I saw things that were not right.

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