JC / Railbird

Juveniles

Betting on Pharoah

American Pharoah parades before the 2015 Haskell

Amanda Duckworth on the American Pharoah effect:

[Monmouth Park] also posted an all-sources handle of $20 million, which is a non-Breeders’ Cup record. The Haskell alone brought in a record $6.54 million, shattering the mark of $4.4 million bet on the 2010 edition. To anyone who questioned why the track bumped the purse of the race from $1 million to $1.75 million, that is your answer. American Pharoah brings in people, betting dollars and a great deal of mainstream exposure. That’s a pretty great trifecta for the sport.

NYRA wants to see that kind of action on the Travers Stakes, and is trying to lure the colt’s connections with a promise to raise the Travers purse to $1.6 million, up from $1.25 million, if American Pharoah follows his Haskell win with a Saratoga appearance. Owner Ahmed Zayat wants to go. “My preference would be to run [next] at Saratoga,” Zayat told Bob Ehalt. “If it’s up to me, it would be the Travers,” he said to Ron Mitchell. “I have made my desires known to my trainer. He knows what I want.” Trainer Bob Baffert says that’s the case, and that Zayat is deferring a decision on the Triple Crown winner’s next race to him. “[T]his is true and accurate statement,” Zayat confirmed with a tweet.

Baffert’s not committing for now: “It’s way too early to say anything.”

This is an interesting little dilemma for owner, trainer, and Coolmore, who will stand the big horse at stud. Sid Fernando’s been dissecting the conflict and incentives via his Twitter stream, discussing the almost-certain “kicker” for winning the Travers (essentially a performance bonus), built into the breeding rights deal Zayat and Coolmore negotiated.

In the scramble for American Pharoah’s next start, the Travers seems to have moved ahead of the Pennsylvania Derby, which is the race I thought he’d point to next, given the likely purse boost, appearance fees for owner and trainer, and Baffert’s lack of interest in running the colt against older horses before the Breeders’ Cup Classic. Parx racing director Sam Elliott has been working hard to sell his race, traveling to Churchill Downs, Santa Anita, and Monmouth Park in pursuit, but Zayat has said “No Penn Derby” and ruled out the Pacific Classic as well — “zero shot!! Timing doesn’t work.” Elliott was at the Haskell on Sunday — I hope he didn’t get the Pennsylvania Derby news on Twitter too.

Mike Pegram, a long-time owner with Baffert, was blunt about the where-next question. “They’ll go where the money is,” he told Ed Zieralski. The Travers’ historic significance plus the added money makes a sweet exacta.

Odds and ends: American Pharoah was given a Beyer speed figure of 109 for the Haskell … Upstart will point to the Travers after running third to the Triple Crown winner on Sunday in his first start since finishing last in the Kentucky Derby. “I was miserably impressed,” trainer Rick Violette said of the Haskell winner … Monmouth reported attendance of 60,983 for Sunday’s race, a figure Chris Rossi calls into question by comparing per-attendee handle for the Haskell since 2000 (chart here, if you follow him on Twitter). This year’s $48.58 is the lowest average in that period, beating the previous low of $65.35 set in 2009. In 2014, the average was $70.29 … you can definitely rule out a possibility that probably hadn’t even occurred to you: The Eclipse Stakes winner Golden Horn will not meet American Pharoah in the Breeders’ Cup. “It’s a complete no-no, on dirt certainly,” said owner Anthony Oppenheimer.

Saratoga babies: The spreadsheet of 2015 juvenile race starters and winners has been updated through second week results (XLS).

Valentina’s Debut

Rachel’s Valentina, the second foal of 2009 Horse of the Year Rachel Alexandra, is set to make her debut in race two at Saratoga on Sunday. It’s a six-furlong maiden special weight, and the 2-year-old Bernardini filly is the 6-5 morning line favorite in a field of eight that includes Awesome Dame and Big World, the second- and third-place finishers of the July 2 maiden special at Belmont Park that was won by buzzy Tonasah. Big World came out of it as one to watch — the Tony Dutrow-trained filly recovered well from a poor break and a wide turn to round out the trifecta. Sixth-place finisher Fabulous Devotion is the only other starter from the July 2 Belmont race yet to return, and she finished third in a maiden special at Parx on Monday.

Trainer Todd Pletcher isn’t overselling his expectations for Rachel’s Valentina: “She’s trained very well and she’s as ready as we can have her,” he told the NYRA press office. “She’s not super quick away from the gate, [so] it’s probably not her ideal distance but it’s a good starting point to build on.”

Rachel Alexandra ran sixth at 27-1 in her 2008 debut, a 4 1/2 furlong maiden special on dirt at Churchill Downs. “No menace,” says the chart. She won her second start three weeks later, going five furlongs. In a nice bit of timing, her filly is debuting on Haskell day, exactly six years after Rachel Alexandra won the 2009 Haskell in peerless fashion:

Trainer Barclay Tagg also has an interesting first-time starter in Sunday’s race — Tale for Ruby. The Tale of Ekati filly had two bullet gate works in a row at Belmont Park on July 6 and 13; her sire’s 15% with debut winners. Tagg was quick to score at Saratoga, and one of his first two winners (from two starters) was the 11-1 firster Realm in last Saturday’s first juvenile race.

There were two more juvenile races at Saratoga on Thursday, both won by Pletcher. Race three went to Sudden Surprise, the first starter for New York sire Giant Surprise, who raced once, winning a 2011 juvenile maiden special at Saratoga (he came out of his debut injured). In race five the runner-up was an MTO entry for trainer Bill Mott — True Pleasure drew in when heavy rain forced the 5 1/2 furlong maiden special off turf and finished second in the slop at 12-1 to favored Island Saint, also an MTO entry. The takeaway — with two wins and two seconds from four starters, Mott first-time babies are still live.

8/1/15 Addendum: A little more from Pletcher on Valentina via David Grening (DRF+): “She’s shown enough quality and class and precocity to win first time out,” Pletcher said. “At the same time, she’s not super quick away from the gate, and the ones that are, you can get a pretty good handle on them winning first time out at short distances. Some of these other ones you know want more ground. It might take a race or two to get there. We’re hoping for a good start and clean trip and something to move her forward on to bigger and better things down the road.”

Saratoga Dark Day #1

Four days down, 36 to go, and Bill Mott has emerged as the early leader in the race for this year’s trainer title. Hott Mott’s won six races from 13 starts so far and only one of his winners — My Friend Keith in Monday’s finale — was a favorite. His horses have finished second or third in four other races. DRF Formulator calculates his ROI at $7.79. That can’t last! Including the first days of Saratoga ’15, Mott’s win rate is 16% and his ROI $1.44 for all starters over the past five years. His elevated numbers opening weekend partially come from an unexpected source — Mott won with two juvenile first-time starters, both in 1 1/16 mile Maiden Special Weights on the turf. Saturday’s winner, Site Read, was 21-1. Sunday’s winner, Sage Hall, 12-1. Mott’s third debuting 2-year-old starter, Rebelle, finished second to Sage Hall, a $258 exacta.

Who else is winning, at least in the meet’s first few juvenile races? Trainer Todd Pletcher’s tied with Mott for two wins, thanks to the disqualification of Magna Light from first in the Sanford Stakes after he veered out in deep stretch when rider Jose Ortiz struck him on the left and then veered back in when struck on the right. Magna Light was bumped to third, runner-up Uncle Vinny to first, and Percolator moved to second. I’m a little sore about the DQ, so instead of ranting, I’ll point to David Grening’s quick (and paywalled) take:

In my opinion, this is a terrible call.

Magna Light was well clear of the rest of the field and while he acted dramatically from the whip of Ortiz he did not bother anybody or cost them the race. He did come back over and got next to Percolator but I don’t think he bothered him. Carmouche never stopped riding.

Carmouche didn’t stop riding, Percolator didn’t break stride (the action begins in the replay at 1:03). The stewards saw it differently:

Kendrick Carmouche, the rider of #10 Percolator, lodged an objection against the winner, #4 Magna Light, for alleged interference in stretch. #4 Magna Light racing on the lead shifts out several paths after passing the 1/8 pole. #10 steadies briefly though #4 is clear when crossing. #4 then drifts back down toward the #10 in the final strides causing #4 to steady. #4 finishes third, beaten a half-length for second.

[SIC] on the final two instances in the above paragraph where the stewards mistype #4 for #10. “More significantly,” writes Tom Noonan:

… is that there is no explanation for their decision. Was it the first move by Magna Light that was the problem, or was it the second? Did it affect the outcome of the race, or was he being penalized for interference even though it did not affect the final result?

Magna Light’s owner, NYRA board member Michael Dubb, has filed an appeal of the disqualification, which he suggested was due to prejudice:

“There is a different set of standards in racing for Rudy Rodriguez,” Dubb … said standing next to his trainer outside the winner’s circle. “Maybe because he is Mexican. He is picked on. He is being held to a different set of standards in racing all together and is being treated unfairly. It’s not good, but it’s the world we live in.”

The New State Gaming Commission made Magna Light and Uncle Vinny co-winners of the Sanford on Monday while they consider Dubb’s appeal. “I don’t think he should be doing it — for the sport,” said Don Lucarelli, co-managing partner of Uncle Vinny owner Starlight Racing. The two could meet again in the Hopeful Stakes, closing weekend at Saratoga.

Steve Asmussen, Roderick Rodriguez, Barclay Tagg, and Rick Violette were the other trainers to win juvenile races during the first four days. Chad Brown finished second with both of his 2-year-old starters. If you’d like to dig more into the first eight juveniles races this meet, here’s a spreadsheet (XLS), which includes each starter and their trainer, jockey, sire, last race, etc.

Watch: Greenpointcrusader, second to Pletcher’s Saratoga Mischief in the fifth race on Saturday. It was the first start for this Dominick Schettino-trained Bernardini colt who’s a 1/2 to graded stakes winners Keyed Entry and Justin Phillip and a full brother to 2012 Holy Bull winner Algorithms. He seemed to figure out what he was being asked to do in the final sixteenth.

Early Runners

How dominant is trainer Wesley Ward in Keeneland spring juvenile races?

When it comes to early season maiden races, Ward’s record is pretty close to off the charts. Since 2009, there have been 47 2-year-old maiden events at the Keeneland spring meet. Ward has had starters in 45 of them. He won 22 of them or 48.9 percent.

Incredible. I didn’t know until I read @DougieSal today, though, that trainer John Shirreffs was once a debut runner win machine:

… in the late 1990’s John Shirreffs was the most brilliant debut trainer in the land. In 1998 and 1999 he trained 24 first-time starters and a mind-boggling 14 of them won their debut and another four finished second. In those days, the Southern California circuit was unquestionably the toughest year-round circuit in horse racing, and Shirreffs won at a 58.3% clip with first-time starters and 75% of his debuters finished first or second.

His takeaway: Bet Cozmic One with caution, if you insist on doing it all.

One Fast Rose

Our Amazing Rose gets a Beyer speed figure of 91 for winning the fifth race on Thursday at Saratoga by 7 3/4 lengths. She went the five furlongs in :57.68, or .59 seconds faster than stablemate Corfu did winning the second. Both making their career debuts for trainer Todd Pletcher, of course. Watch the replay.

Pletcher Baby ROI

Everyone knows that trainer Todd Pletcher is dominant is Saratoga juvenile races, but he’s profitable, too, in certain scenarios: His five-year win stat for first-time starters in dirt sprint maiden special weights is 32%, with an ROI of $2.57. In the same conditions, restricted to state-breds, he’s 46%, with an ROI of $3.25. “Perhaps the time to take down a Pletcher juvenile firster is in maiden special weight turf routes,” writes Dan Illman, who pulled the preceding numbers from DRF Formulator. Good luck getting a big price in any circumstance, though: The longest juvenile shot Pletcher has won at Saratoga with in the past five years is Interactif, in the 2009 With Anticipation. He was 16-1 at post time. The only other Pletcher winner with double-digit odds was Lawn Man, in a 2012 six-furlong MSW. He was 10-1 going into the gate.

Missing Juveniles

Jennie Rees wonders:

What happens to all the 2-year-old maiden winners? Not long ago, Churchill had three stakes for 2-year-old colts in the spring. Now there’s only the Bashford Manor (plus the Debutante for fillies). And there’s virtually no such thing as an allowance race for 2-year-olds. How is this, with so many 2-year-olds on the grounds?

The Better Horses

Two items from the DRF story on the Breeders’ Cup juvenile race Lasix ban:

At Saratoga, the biggest East Coast summer meeting for 2-year-olds, 137 of 694 starters (19.7 percent) in 90 juvenile races raced without Lasix. The Lasix-free horses won only half as frequently as Lasix users … but other factors drove the disparity in win rate. Principally, trainer Todd Pletcher, the strongest 2-year-old trainer in New York, sent all his winners out with Lasix.

And:

“We can talk about it the day after the race, but I can guarantee you right now,” [trainer Christophe Clement] said. “The better horse will win …”

Re: the first, Pletcher’s all-Lasix Spa baby squad is definitely one of the factors that must be taken into account looking at this summer’s Lasix-free winner stats. And for the second, that there’s no Lasix in the juvenile races tilted trainer Richard Hannon toward sending Moyglare Stud Stakes winner Sky Lantern to the Breeders’ Cup because, “[it’s] a level playing field for all of us.” It can only be for the good if trainers here and abroad perceive the Breeders’ Cup as letting the best horses shine through drug-free.

The Seen and Unseen

As the rubric for Eric Mitchell’s Blood-Horse column asks, what’s going on here? In his latest, Mitchell surveys the trainers of the Lasix-free juvenile starters owned by those who pledged to run their 2-year-olds without raceday drugs and finds promise in their results. He also offers some stats:

A chart on this page shows how the non-Salix horses have been performing. Between July 20 and Sept. 5, a total of 749 2-year-old races were run in the U.S. and Canada. Among the winners of those races, 660 (88.1%) ran on Salix and 89 (11.9%) did not.

Among horses that finished in the money, 87.4% raced on Salix and 12.6% ran without the medication.

Interesting. But what do the numbers mean? Very little, without knowing in which, of the 749 juvenile races surveyed, all the starters were on Lasix (those races should be excluded from analysis*; as should, on the off-chance any such event occurred, any race in which no starter was on Lasix), or without knowing the breakdown between the total number of starters on Lasix and not on Lasix. A second chart accompanying the column, focusing on the 2012 Saratoga juvenile races, gives that information, but crucially leaves out the percentages: 20.4% of starts were Lasix-free; 11.2% of winners were.

Not to draw conclusions from the above — there are too many factors in play. As trainer Kiaran McLaughlin told Mitchell, “I just don’t win first time out.” But the numbers hint at a possible answer for the question of whether or not Lasix is performance enhancing, and what its role should be in training and racing. Another potentially illuminating angle on that question would be to look at the 2-year-old earnings for the Lasix-free owners — are their accounts depressed as a group? As compared to previous years? What’s the cost of eschewing raceday medications so long as Lasix remains legal?

A few weeks ago, Tyler Hamilton excited attention with the release of his book, “The Secret Race,” and its revelations about cycling’s doping culture:

The book is the holy grail for disillusioned cycling fans in search of answers. In a taut 268 pages, Hamilton confidently and systematically destroys any sense that there was ever any chance of cleaning up cycling in the early 2000s, revealing the sport’s powerful and elaborate doping infrastructure. He’s like a retiring magician who has decided to let the public in on the profession’s most guarded techniques.

(Before I go any further: Yes, Hamilton’s book is about illegal drug use in cycling, and Lasix is a legal drug in horse racing. I do not conflate the illegal and legal except in considering how decisions to use a drug or not may be distorted by perceptions of advantages employed by others to win.)

For Michael Shermer, the book highlights “the hidden price” of doping:

This is the real harm to those athletes who did not want to dope, who were given the choice to dope and opted out, who pulled over to the curb on the boulevard of broken dreams, stripped off their race number, and packed it in to go home, in most cases back to menial jobs or to finish high school or start college. Who are these cyclists? Tyler names a few in his book, but in most cases we have no idea who they are because they are the unseen ones, those whose potential was never realized because they never had the chance to compete cleanly against their peers.

Realizing potential is one of the arguments used to justify Lasix — stakes caliber horses who bleed abroad may be sent to the US to run, for instance, because their condition can be treated and their careers can continue. Lasix reveals these horses’ full abilities, goes the thinking; to deny them a legal treatment is to make them the unseen ones. And that’s really the question behind the raceday Lasix debate: Which horses should be unseen? Those who can run Lasix-free, or those who can’t run without Lasix?

*Credit to @o_crunk for bringing this point up via DM.

“The Statistics Are Somewhat Hopeful”

Jeff Scott checks the stats on Saratoga’s Lasix-free juvenile starters:

The 141 Lasix-free 2-year-olds were distributed over 71 races; only nine were post-time favorites. As a group, they accounted for 10 wins, 13 seconds and 14 thirds. With all the variables involved, it is difficult to assess the significance of these results. The sample is also a very small one. It can be said, though, that many 2-year-olds performed well without Lasix this summer at Saratoga. And that is good news for anyone who doesn’t like to think American horses can’t compete without this medication on race day.

Noted: “Bled” isn’t a chart comment on any of those races.

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