In-depth Saratoga trainer capsules (Part 1)

The Saratoga meet is filled with extremely competitive fields and difficult handicapping puzzles. One of the best ways to make your handicapping easier and better is by following trainer trends, which can be useful in narrowing down the races to their few top contenders.

All trainers have their own particular strengths and weaknesses. The beauty of following the trainer angles, stats and trends, is that they help you identify these strengths and weaknesses to give you the advantage over the rest of the betting public.

Bet trainers at their strengths and bet against them at their weaknesses, and your win percentage and return on investment (ROI) will go upward quickly.

Read onward for an easy-to-use pocket reference for the best times to bet on, and bet against, most of the top trainers throughout the summer meet at historic Saratoga Race Course. The opinions are based on recent trends and statistics pertaining specifically to this time of year – the racing season at Saratoga. These preferences may differ elsewhere and at other times of the year.

Apologies if a particular trainer is not mentioned in this guide; it’s impossible to feature everyone. The 32 trainers listed will account for the vast majority of starters at the Spa meet. This is the first part of a three-part series.

Please click for Part 2 (D-M) and Part 3 (P-Z).

SARATOGA SUMMER TRAINER CAPSULES (A-C)

Tom Albertrani

Albertrani is most dangerous at Saratoga with his high-priced stock, including mostly allowance horses. He also wins doing second-time anything, including second off the layoff and second-time starters.

  • Bet: Second off the layoff, second starters
  • Bet against: Claimers
  • Neutral: Turf sprints

Steve Asmussen

One of the country’s top trainers, Asmussen is hot-and-cold at The Spa. The time you want to play Asmussen is in dirt sprints, especially when he sends out his expensive juveniles in either their first- or second-starts.

  • Bet: Dirt sprints, 2-year-old first- and second-time starters
  • Bet against: All turf races
  • Neutral: Dirt routes

Bob Baffert

Not as much of a day-to-day factor at Saratoga as he was several years ago since Del Mar brought back dirt racing, Baffert still ships top stakes horses and expensive 2-year-olds and first-time starters.

Charlton Baker

Baker runs good horses both upstate at Finger Lakes and downstate at Belmont and Aqueduct, and he will take his shots at Saratoga with live horses from both categories. Baker’s best area of expertise is with the kinds of long layoff horses that you’d toss out from other barns. He also has been known to pop at The Spa with first-time starters, particularly versus New York-breds.

  • Bet: First starters, horses returning from long layoffs
  • Bet against: Turf routes
  • Neutral: Turf sprints

Bruce Brown

Bruce Brown struggled to win a race – any kind of race – in many recent Saratoga meets. Who he is at Saratoga is a guy who can win an occasional dirt claiming race. No big surprises, stick to his horses in good form only, and don’t expect positive turnarounds.

  • Bet: Older claimers with good form
  • Bet against: Maidens and first starters; turf
  • Neutral: Dirt routes

Chad Brown

Brown is the heavy favorite for the Saratoga training title, with dozens of wins rolling-in in all categories including maidens, allowances and stakes, and every kind of turf route race. You can be guaranteed that all of Brown’s horses at The Spa will be live. His wins tend to come early in the meet, and you know he’ll be pointing many good horses for Saratoga stakes.

  • Bet: Maiden special weights on turf, dirt sprints (not maidens), and every kind of turf router
  • Bet against: Maiden claimers, maidens on the dirt
  • Neutral: Turf sprints

Tom Bush

Bush has main been ice cold in some recent years, but he still can heat-up at the Spa for a win or two. He’s been known to jack-up his game at Saratoga and is quietly a trainer to watch in terms of ROI, especially on the dirt. When his number of turf starters increase, so do his number of turf wins.

  • Bet: Dirt routes
  • Bet against: Cheap claimers
  • Neutral: Turf races

Mark Casse

Mark Casse has expanded his operation nationally in recent years and has also expanded his reach at Saratoga, but will have fewer stalls at Saratoga in 2019.  You can count on Casse for some turf winners, but he is a notorious Spa snail – a trainer who starts slow but whose horses win their second or third starts of the meet  Casse has particularly upped his game at Saratoga with 2-year-olds, first-time turf starters, and horses making their career debut in grass races.

  • Bet: 2-year-olds, turf career debuts, first-time turf, horses making 2nd or 3rd start of meet
  • Bet against: Dirt sprints for 3yo & up, horses making first start of the meet
  • Neutral: Turf sprints

Christophe Clement

Turf ace trainer Clement’s game is on the grass, of course, and he is good in turf stakes wins. Expect 25% wins or better in turf routes, and Clement also focuses on turf sprints at this meet (he unseated Linda Rice’s multi-year domination to lead all trainers with six turf sprint wins in 2015). Clement isn’t usually much of a factor on the dirt at Saratoga. He occasionally throws in a dirt sprint winner here and there.

  • Bet: Turf routes, turf sprints, turf stakes
  • Bet against: Dirt routes
  • Neutral: Dirt sprints

Gary Contessa

Contessa is one of the most prolific trainers on the New York circuit in terms of starters, but he’s generally a very bad bet at Saratoga with low percentages in dirt routes, turf sprints and turf routes. His wins will come mostly with dirt sprinters in claiming races. One sneaky angle for Contessa at Saratoga is with first-time turfers, who can occasionally win and pay giant prices when they do.

  • Bet: Dirt sprints, claimers, first-time turf (only at Saratoga)
  • Bet against: Dirt routes, turf sprints, allowance and stakes races
  • Neutral: Turf routes

Brad Cox

Cox regularly achieves winning percentages around 30% wherever he goes, with around 55% in-the-money (ITM), and 2019 so far has been his best year yet. Basically capable of winning in all categories, his win percentage will drop at Saratoga in turf races due to the stiff competition at the meet. His winning percentage with 2YO and first starters will also fall short of his standards at this meet.

  • Bet: Dirt routes, dirt sprints, second off a layoff
  • Bet against: First time starters and 2-year-olds
  • Neutral: Turf sprints

Many handicappers believe the “trainer angle” is the most important piece of the handicapping pie, especially when top-rung racing takes place, like in New York during the heart of summer in July and August. All trainers have their own particular strengths and weaknesses. The beauty of following the trainer angles, stats and trends, is that they help you identify these strengths and weaknesses to decisively give you the advantage over the rest of the betting public.

Best of luck, and enjoy summer racing in New York.

PHOTO: Saratoga starting gate (c) Harold Roth/Horsephotos.com

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Final Kentucky Derby works round-up: notes and quotes from coast to coast

With the exception of Japan Road invitee Master Fencer, who continued his routine exercise at Keeneland, the other 19 Kentucky Derby (G1) contenders turned in workouts between last Thursday and Monday.

MONDAY, APRIL 29

At Palm Meadows, unbeaten Florida Derby (G1) winner Maximum Security was credited with a half-mile move in :53.80. In trainer Jason Servis’ methodology, however, that was simply the finale to a gallop.

“He went a mile in 1:58 and came home, I want to say, in 25 (seconds) for the last quarter,” Servis said. “He galloped out a mile and an eighth in 2:12 and cooled out good. All systems are, ‘Go.’”

Servis commented on how the Palm Meadows clocker timed the move.

“They’re getting the last (half-mile) when the horse is breezing a slow mile,” Servis said. “That’s something that probably needs to be addressed at some point.

“I think it was after his second race that I took him off the rail, so to speak, and started doing the open miles. It’s just a maintaining thing, trying to avoid injuries that would set us back. Maybe in a fast breeze there is more risk than what I’m doing.”

At Churchill Downs, Long Range Toddy, victorious in the first Rebel (G2) division before a sixth in the Arkansas Derby (G1), breezed a half-mile in :47.80. The Steve Asmussen pupil was caught in fractions of :12.60, :24.20, and :35.80, and proceeded to gallop out five furlongs in 1:01.20 and six in 1:12.40.

“Hopefully, we’ll have a fast track like we had (Monday) morning,” the Hall of Fame trainer said, unlike the sloppy going in the Arkansas Derby. “He worked beautifully this morning. At this time of the year, the three-year-olds have to step up. He stepped up big time in the Rebel and hopefully can continue to improve. He’ll need to put up the race of a lifetime in the Derby.”

SUNDAY, APRIL 28

Churchill’s Sunday worktab was busier with six Derby hopefuls out for major moves.

Bill Mott’s duo of Wood Memorial (G2) hero Tacitus and Country House commenced a five-eighths drill in company, bursting through to the inside of Maryland shipper Win Win Win and his workmate as they tooled along. But Win Win Win sailed past the Mott duo in deep stretch in his half-mile work. Tacitus and Country House caught back up with Win Win Win entering the clubhouse turn as they matched strides until Win Win Win eased to the outside with his task accomplished.

Country House on the rail, and Tacitus flanking him, clocked five furlongs in 1:00. The tandem posted fractions of :12.20, :24.20, :35.80, and :48, and galloped out six furlongs in 1:12.80, seven furlongs in 1:26, and a mile in 1:39.80.

“My team was ready to break off,” Mott said, “and they (Win Win Win and workmate) probably didn’t know we were going to work. All the riders did a really good job and I really have to commend all of them. It’s not going to hurt them and they better get used to (traffic) if they’re not already or they’ll get a surprise on Derby Day. It’s pretty crowded out there.

“We have a week to go until the Derby and we look like we’re in good shape. They finished up right together. They may have been a head apart. I told them if they could work together, that would help each other during the work. Both of my horses have pretty laid-back dispositions and they probably needed their company to encourage each other. For me, it worked out perfectly.”

Win Win Win, who dusted his company in :47.60, was caught in splits of :24.20 and :36. The Mike Trombetta trainee galloped out five furlongs in 1:00.20.

“That was a little different, but it worked out well,” jockey Julian Pimentel said of the work that unfolded unexpectedly when the Mott pair barreled through on the inside, when Win Win Win surged by, and when they all re-engaged. “He went about his business and he wanted to go get them.”

Louisiana Derby (G2) winner By My Standards continued to tout himself in the mornings with a strong half in :48.40. After initial fractions of :12.40, :24, and :36.40, the Bret Calhoun pupil galloped out with good energy, covering five furlongs in 1:00.60, six in 1:12.80, and polishing off seven in 1:26.60.

“Well, that couldn’t have gone any better,” Calhoun said. “It’s just a blessing how well he’s doing entering the Derby. He’s doing everything we’ve asked him to do and just moves so effortlessly around the racetrack.”

Los Alamitos Futurity (G1) hero Improbable, runner-up in the Arkansas Derby, rolled through five furlongs in company in 1:00.60. A touch overeager early as he dragged Florent Geroux up to, and past, his workmate, the Bob Baffert runner recorded splits of :11.80, :23.60, and :36.40. He kept motoring six furlongs in 1:13 and galloped out seven, in hand, in 1:25.60.

“He loves this track,” Baffert said. “I just love the way he kept on galloping out today.”

“I don’t think he was rank,” said Geroux, who will ride stablemate Roadster in the Derby as Irad Ortiz Jr. picks up Improbable. “He was just maybe a little bit keen and feeling good. He’s very easy (to ride) actually. Down the lane he was responding exactly to what I was asking him to. I could have gone faster if I wanted to. I could have gone a touch slower if I wanted to. He was just very cooperative.”

Fountain of Youth (G2) victor Code of Honor, third in the Florida Derby, zipped four furlongs in :46.80 to post the second fastest of 76 on the day. The Shug McGaughey pupil reeled off splits of :11.80, :23.20, :35.20, and galloped out five in :59.40 and six furlongs in 1:13.20.

“I told (exercise rider Brian Duggan) to go in :48,” the Hall of Famer said, “but the track was pretty good this morning.”

SATURDAY, APRIL 27

Arkansas Derby star Omaha Beach likely solidified Kentucky Derby favoritism by working five-eighths at Churchill in :59. The second best of 43 at the distance, eclipsed only by four-year-old multiple Grade 1 winner McKinzie’s :58.60, Omaha Beach showed push-button tractability as he rated off workmate Kowboy Karma before dismissing him rapidly.

“He felt good, very good,” said Julien Leparoux, who was subbing for Derby rider Mike Smith after the work was postponed to the weekend for better weather. “When I asked him, he went.”

Omaha Beach recorded fractions of :12, :23.60, and :35.40, and capped the move with a six-furlong gallop-out in 1:12.80.

Hall of Fame horseman Richard Mandella, looking for his first Derby victory, was delighted.

“I just wanted him to have one more good work; that’s all he needed,” Mandella said. “He got it today. They were supposed to go off together, but it all worked out fine. He went and got him. I really liked that he settled right down after the work. He acts like a professional racehorse. I don’t think this work took much out of him at all. It couldn’t have gone better. It’s all working out just right.

“I’ve never had a three-year-old doing this well this early. He’s just special. Since (capturing the second division of the) Rebel (G2) he’s filled out and just gotten better. He’s pure class. And he’s a kind horse. A horse that’s easy to be around.”

Trainer Mark Casse was likewise happy with War of Will’s bullet half in :47.60, joint-fastest of 79 on the day. His company no more than a target, the Risen Star (G2) and Lecomte (G3) hero was caught in :12, :24 and :36.20 with jockey Tyler Gaffalione aboard. War of Will opened up at will as he galloped out five furlongs in 1:00 and six furlongs in 1:13.60.

“What you got to see this morning, if you weren’t impressed with him this morning, I don’t know what we’re supposed to do,” Casse said.

UAE Derby (G2) winner Plus Que Parfait also bested his company in a five-furlong move in 1:02.00. Trainer Brendan Walsh was satisfied that after opening splits of :12, :23.60, and :36.20, he settled down to clock a half in :49.40 and stayed on steadily to gallop out six furlongs in 1:15.60.

“He has become more aggressive now than how he used to be, which I think is a good thing to see,” Walsh said. “He went a little faster than we wanted early on and the last thing I wanted to do was do too much with him right now. Then, when he left the lead horse, he lazed a little bit and it was fine. I wanted 1:02 and out in 1:15 and that’s exactly how he went.

UAE Derby runner-up Gray Magician, tuning up at trainer Peter Miller’s San Luis Rey base, worked five-eighths in 1:00.40. With Derby rider Drayden Van Dyke up, he overtook his workmate and drew off.

“He worked super and came home really well,” Miller said. “I couldn’t be happier with how he did it. He came home (his final quarter-mile) in :23 1/5 and that was very good. He galloped out another eighth (to get six furlongs) in 1:12 2/5. This is a fast race track here, but it was the way he did it.

“Drayden came and worked him and the horse really did it on his own. He just shook the reins at him once and he opened up on his workmate. He started out about three lengths behind him and finished about 12 lengths ahead.”

FRIDAY, APRIL 26

At Santa Anita, Baffert’s one-two from the Santa Anita Derby (G1), Roadster and Game Winner, pulled away from their respective workmates in a pair of stiff drills beneath Martin Garcia. Each was positioned on the inside and set the pace themselves on the deep surface.

“I had them inside just to keep the pressure on,” Baffert said.

Roadster went out first, after the 6:45 a.m. (PDT) renovation break, and covered six furlongs in 1:13.80.

“I loved the way he went,” Baffert said. “Martin said he felt great and didn’t take a deep breath. That’s one thing about this horse – he’ll go a mile and a quarter. We just don’t know how fast. He handles a deep track, and the really good ones will do that.

“He’ll be fit when he leaves here, because I think the Santa Anita Derby got him pretty fit. After that, I could see a big change in him. He really needed that race.

“As soon as I told him to pick it up, he took off. He was controlling the work and just cruising along…if the horse is good enough, he’s ready.”

File photo of Game Winner working at Santa Anita April 20

Game Winner, last year’s Breeders’ Cup Juvenile (G1) champion at Churchill, took to the Santa Anita track after the 7:45 a.m. break and strode relentlessly through seven furlongs in 1:27.

“Game Winner looked awesome; it was perfect,” Baffert said, significantly for a horse who’s not the flashiest worker.

Friday’s other three Derby works came at Palm Beach Downs.

Blue Grass (G2) winner Vekoma breezed a bullet five furlongs in :59.95 in company with fellow George Weaver trainee Majestic Dunhill, who shared the bullet. Derby jockey Javier Castellano was astride for the joint-best of eight moves on the day.

Todd Pletcher’s duo of Cutting Humor and Spinoff also geared up at their winter base.

Sunland Park Derby (G3) winner Cutting Humor blitzed a half-mile in a bullet :48.01, fastest of 15 at the distance. Posting fractions of :13 and :24.80, he galloped out five furlongs in 1:00.80.

Louisiana Derby runner-up Spinoff tied workmate Last Judgment when clocking five-eighths in 1:00.77. Splits were reported in :13, :25, and :37, followed by gallop-out times of 1:13.60 for six furlongs and seven in 1:27.

THURSDAY, APRIL 25

Belmont Park hosted both Derby workers, Tax and Haikal, the respective second and third from the Wood.

Tax, the Withers (G3) winner, sped a half in :47.80 on the training track while blowing by his workmate. His time was the fourth-best of 79 on the day.

“I thought he worked really tremendous,” trainer Danny Gargan said. “We put a target in front of him because he likes to run at something and :47 and change is fast today. I worked a few horses earlier today and no one worked that fast. Divine Miss Grey went :48 and change and she’s a good work horse. The gallop-out was impressive and he’s training really well.”

On the main oval, Gotham (G3) hero Haikal negotiated five furlongs in company in 1:01.21, matching strides with Taamer before edging clear.

“I loved what I saw this morning,” trainer Kiaran McLaughlin said. “He kept going out and finished strong. It was an excellent work.

“He went a little fast last week (bullet half in :47.59 on April 19), but it was probably the track. This week was really nice. The way he galloped out and the way he worked he looked really good. In hand. I really like this work better this week.”

Top photo of Omaha Beach in routine exercise April 22 (c) Rickelle Nelson/Horsephotos.com

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Five things to know about the 2019 Kentucky Derby

With less than a week to go before the 145th Kentucky Derby (G1) on May 4, here are five things to know going into what must be considered a fascinating and contentious renewal of the 1 1/4-mile classic.

1. Hall of Fame trainer Bob Baffert has the gloves off in his quest for a record-tying sixth victory in the Run for the Roses as reigning juvenile champion Game Winner, Santa Anita Derby (G1) winner Roadster, and the Grade 1-winning Improbable all figure to be among the top four or five betting choices. While Game Winner and Improbable were his two leading prospects entering the winter, both finished second in their respective two preps, and no Baffert trainee has turned in his first win of the season in the Derby since Real Quiet (1998). Roadster, on the other hand, has perhaps come to the fore after defeating Game Winner in the Santa Anita Derby and belatedly living up to Baffert’s reported belief last summer that he might be the best colt in the barn. The record Baffert seeks to tie is that of Ben Jones, who won six Derbies from 1938 through 1952, primarily for the Calumet Farm juggernaut.

2. The streak of winning favorites could be extended to seven if, as seems quite possible, Omaha Beach goes favored and runs to the positive vibes he’s given off since arrival at Churchill Downs. Owned by Rick Porter, whose horses have run second in the Derby on two previous occasions, Omaha Beach is trained by Hall of Famer Richard Mandella, a highly-respected member of his profession but one who hasn’t taken too many serious shots at this race in the past 30-plus years. Mandella’s enthusiasm for this colt as been evident and infectious in many respects. Though Omaha Beach lost his first four races, three of which were on turf and two of them in photo finishes, the son of War Front has turned the corner with three straight victories over a variety of surfaces including a division of the Rebel (G2) and the Arkansas Derby (G1) against two of the Baffert colts.

3. Bill Mott, who from 1986 through late 2017 held the distinction of being the all-time winningest trainer in Churchill Downs history, is taking what many consider his best shot at winning the Derby for the first time with Tacitus. Owner-breeder Juddmonte Farms has also come close without winning, and in Tacitus they’ve given Mott a colt with the genetic tools to get the job done. By superstar sire Tapit, the gray is the first foal out of Eclipse Award-winning mare Close Hatches, who Mott also trained. After a career-opening fourth last October, Tacitus has reeled off three straight wins, including the Tampa Bay Derby (G2) and Wood Memorial (G2). Avoiding much of the trouble that compromised others in the latter prep, Tacitus has thus displayed a touch of maturity and gained valuable experience running in a race where congestion and problematic trips can arise.

4. The only undefeated colt in the field has so far proven to be one of the fastest and yet he remains a bit of a mystery and isn’t attracting much pre-race buzz. Maximum Security‘s background has much to do with the latter. The son of New Year’s Day wiped the floor with his rivals in his first three outings, but those came against $16,000 maiden claimers and in two starter allowances. However, he proved up to the challenge stepping up in class in the Florida Derby (G1), setting a moderate pace and storming home to a 3 1/2-length score in his first start beyond seven furlongs. Seeing out a 10th furlong against a much stronger field will be demanding, especially if the tempo will be significantly quicker as many expect. But whose to say Maximum Security wouldn’t be able to run the rest off their feet if allowed to a la Spend a Buck? Trainer Jason Servis seeks to emulate his brother, John, who trained Smarty Jones to a Kentucky Derby victory in 2004.

5. There are several intriguing contenders expected to start at double-digit odds. By My Standards, who seeks to become only the third horse to win the Kentucky Derby after taking the Louisiana Derby (G2), has visually impressed observers since arriving from his winter headquarters in New Orleans. A maiden graduate only five weeks before the Louisiana Derby, the Bret Calhoun-trained colt is coming to hand at the right time. Code of Honor hopped on many people’s Derby lists last year after an impressive debut win and troubled second in the Champagne (G1), but flies in under the radar after a win in the Fountain of Youth (G2) was book-ended by relatively so-so finishes in two other preps. Owner Will Farish, the master of the famed Lane’s End Farm in Versailles, last won a Triple Crown race way back in 1972 (Preakness Stakes [G1] with Bee Bee Bee). Also looking to bounce back to better form is War of Will, who dominated the Lecomte (G3) and Risen Star (G2) before disappointing as the odds-on choice in the Louisiana Derby. He virtually lost all chance a few strides out of the gate when his hind end gave way, resulting in a muscle injury. Back in better health, the colt displayed eye-catching cruising speed winning his first two preps and figures to be forwardly placed.

PHOTO: The 2019 Kentucky Derby trophy (c) Coady Photography/Churchill Downs

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A brief history of and recent betting trends in the Rebel Stakes

If Saturday’s Rebel (G2) is split into two divisions as Oaklawn Park officials expect, each division of the Road to the Kentucky Derby series prep will be worth $750,000. Derby qualifying points of 37 1/2 – 15 – 7 1/2 – 3 3/4 will be distributed to the top four finishers in each division.

If the race is indeed split, the heavy favorites will be the Bob Baffert-trained pair of Game Winner and Improbable, whom Oaklawn officials have said would not be placed in the same division.

The 1 1/16-mile Rebel has had an interesting history. Beginning life as an overnight handicap in the 1960s, the Rebel’s first significant winner was Temperence Hill (1980), who would go on to win the Belmont Stakes (G1) and the three-year-old title.

The first horse to win the Rebel and the Kentucky Derby (G1) was Sunny’s Halo in 1983, but it wasn’t until 1990 that the Rebel was finally elevated to Grade 3 status. In the 1990s it was won by future classic winners Pine Bluff (1992) and Victory Gallop (1998).

The purse of the Rebel declined to $100,000 at the turn of the century, and for two years it was run as a non-graded Listed event. The race’s fortune took a turn for the better in 2004 when the purse was boosted to $200,000 and a $5 million bonus was offered to any horse that could win Oaklawn’s major preps — the Southwest, Rebel, and Arkansas Derby — and the Kentucky Derby. As luck would have it, Smarty Jones took full advantage of that enticement and swept all four races. The Rebel was elevated back to a Grade 3 event the following year, and in 2008 was boosted to a Grade 2.

As can be seen from a list of winners since Smarty Jones, the Rebel has generally been a formful race. Bob Baffert has trained six of them since 2010, including the shortest-priced winner (American Pharoah) and the highest single-digit priced winner (Hoppertunity).

YEAR WINNER ODDS
2004 Smarty Jones 3.50
2005 Greater Good 4.60
2006 Lawyer Ron 1.80
2007 Curlin 2.70
2008 Sierra Sunset 4.20
2009 Win Willy 56.80
2010 Lookin at Lucky 1.10
2011 The Factor 1.40
2012 Secret Circle 1.00
2013 Will Take Charge 28.00
2014 Hoppertunity 6.10
2015 American Pharoah 0.40
2016 Cupid 2.90
2017 Malagacy 3.30
2018 Magnum Moon 3.00

The two longshot winners of the Rebel since 2004 turned out to be good ones. Win Willy eventually earned over a million dollars and won the 2011 Oaklawn H. (G2). Will Take Charge was sent off at long odds after winning the Smarty Jones at odds of 12-1 but faltering to sixth in a Southwest (G3) contested in the slop. Unplaced in all three Triple Crown events, he finally turned things around late in the season and was voted champion three-year-old colt.

When Baffert or big longshots haven’t ruled, the Rebel has been the domain of horses making their first start in a stakes race. Curlin (2007) notably won his stakes debut in the Rebel en route to Horse of the Year honors, and the last three winners of the Rebel — the Todd Pletcher-trained Magnum Moon and Malagacy, and the Baffert-trained Cupid — all entered the race with no stakes experience.

We’ll have to see the composition of the field or fields Wednesday afternoon, but it’s a safe assumption bettors across the country will expect Baffert’s decade-long dominance of the Rebel will continue Saturday rather than the streak of stakes newbies winning. On the other hand, three odds-on favorites have lost the Rebel during the time span in question — Afleet Alex (2005), Z Fortune (2008), and Old Fashioned (2009) — and Baffert-trained favorites have lost each of the past two editions.

When a Baffert-trained horse has won the Rebel, the average $2 Exacta payoff has been more than $59.80. If you’re confident in Game Winner and/or Improbable getting the job done Saturday, your betting fortunes might depend on finding the future good one, like Caleb’s Posse (24-1 in 2011) or Whitmore (4-1 in 2016), for the second slot.

 

Improbable: (c) Benoit Photos

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Five things to know for Kentucky Derby preps: Risen Star, El Camino Real, Hyacinth, Southwest

Presidents’ Day weekend features four scoring races on the Road to the Kentucky Derby, chief among them Saturday’s $400,000 Risen Star (G2) at Fair Grounds.

The Risen Star is the first race of the Kentucky Derby “Championship Season” offering more points as the trail gets tougher. Worth 50 points to the winner, the Risen Star awards 20 points to the runner-up, 10 to third, and 5 points to the fourth-placer.

FREE Risen Star PPs courtesy of Brisnet

The other two U.S. scoring races this weekend conclude the “Prep Season” with the familiar 10-4-2-1 points structure – Saturday’s $100,000 El Camino Real Derby at Golden Gate Fields and Monday’s $500,000 Southwest S. (G3) at Oaklawn Park.

FREE El Camino Real Derby PPs courtesy of Brisnet

FREE Southwest PPs courtesy of Brisnet

The remaining points contest takes place in Tokyo Sunday, the Hyacinth S., as the third of four races on the Japan Road to the Kentucky Derby.

Here are five things to know about the Derby preps over Presidents’ Day weekend:

1. Risen Star favorite War of Will faces a potentially challenging scenario. The impressive winner of Fair Grounds’ first stepping stone, the January 19 Lecomte (G3), War of Will has accordingly been installed as the 5-2 favorite. The well-regarded Mark Casse trainee has looked superb ever since switching from turf, taking his two dirt starts by a combined total of nine lengths. But the Risen Star sets up differently. War of Will figures to cover extra ground from post 14, and in conjunction with a possibly more honest pace, his trip might not be as favorable.

Conversely, a couple of his beaten rivals from the Lecomte are eligible to get better trips this time. That holds true especially for Plus Que Parfait, the fast-finishing Kentucky Jockey Club (G2) runner-up who’s more talented than his trouble-marred fifth in the Lecomte implies. A similar case could be made for Roiland, a slow-starting fifth in the Jockey Club and seventh in the Lecomte.

2. The Risen Star field is deeper than the Lecomte. If War of Will still has the measure of his Lecomte foes regardless of circumstances, he’ll have to defeat several new rivals. Hall of Fame trainer Bill Mott dispatches Country House off his sensational maiden score at Gulfstream Park, where he rallied from a terrible start to win in a romp. Mr. Money, fourth in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile (G1), got sick right before his intended reappearance in the Lecomte but just fired a bullet in readiness.

Hall of Famer Steve Asmussen is double-handed with Limonite, a close third in the Jockey Club, and Gun It, the $2.6 million Tapit colt out of a half to Saint Liam and a “cousin” of Gun Runner. Gun It, third to the promising Owendale and Frolic More in a local allowance, was originally the also-eligible but drew in after the scratch of Kingly (see point 3 below). Mike Maker likewise fields two entrants in smart turf performer Henley’s Joy, who takes a page from War of Will’s playbook in trying dirt, and Dunph, most recently third in the Springboard Mile.

3. The El Camino Real Derby tests the aspirations of Bob Baffert’s shipper Kingly and local hero Anothertwistafate. Kingly was rerouted to Golden Gate after drawing post 13 in the Risen Star. Although he found a relatively less intimidating spot, the full brother to Mohaymen needs to take another step forward while coping with a synthetic surface for the first time. His debut maiden win at Del Mar, and second to Extra Hope in a Santa Anita allowance, suggest more scrappiness than brilliance, but he’s still learning. In contrast, Anothertwistafate has looked like a budding star in a pair of wire jobs on Golden Gate’s Tapeta. And he has a pedigree to match, as a $360,000 son of Scat Daddy from a solid Juddmonte family. If the Blaine Wright trainee can hurl back the Southern California invasion, he’ll enhance his stature as a Derby hopeful.

Aside from Kingly, other Santa Anita shippers include Eagle Song, proven on synthetic in Ireland and likely to relish the stretch-out to 1 1/8 miles; turf aficionado King of Speed, who should be happier here than when last on dirt in the Los Alamitos Futurity (G1); and More Ice, going turf-to-synthetic for Hall of Famer Jerry Hollendorfer.

4. The Hyacinth has implications both for the Japan Road and the UAE Derby (G2). Scheduled to go off Saturday night at 12:25 a.m. (EST), the metric mile event pits the respective second and third on the Japan leaderboard in Make Happy and Derma Louvre. Both are looking to bounce back from a loss in the Zen-Nippon Nisai Yushun at Kawasaki, where Derma Louvre was an unlucky near-misser and Make Happy was a lackluster fourth. The change of venue to Tokyo will suit Cal-bred filly Make Happy, two-for-two over course and distance including a romp in the Cattleya Sho.

Triple Crown-nominated Derma Louvre also boasts a local win, as part of his prior three-race streak, and a big effort here may propel him to the March 30 UAE Derby on Dubai World Cup night. Fellow Triple Crown nominee Master Fencer, two-for-two since switching to dirt, is another with Dubai interest. The undefeated duo of Weitblick and Oval Ace are also worth watching, despite the fact they’re not nominated to the UAE Derby or the Triple Crown.

5. The Southwest is a rematch of the Smarty Jones – and much more. Six of the 11 entered in the Southwest are renewing rivalry from Oaklawn’s first prep, the Smarty Jones. Front-running Gray Attempt spearheaded the “Smarty” superfecta in a blanket finish over Long Range Toddy, Boldor, and Six Shooter, while beaten favorite Bankit didn’t factor in sixth, and Souper Steed threw in a clunker in seventh. As that synopsis suggests, it might not be the strongest form in the world.

Maybe that’s why Asmussen is pitching a total of five in the mix, with Jersey Agenda and Ninth Street joining Long Range Toddy, Boldor, and Bankit (who picks up Jose Ortiz). Jersey Agenda has won both his dirt starts with a forward yet pleasingly tractable style, and it could be significant that Ricardo Santana Jr. is aboard the recent Oaklawn allowance winner. Baffert is missing, but there is a Santa Anita invader in Keith Desormeaux’s Sueno, runner-up in the Sham (G3). Gulfstream flavor comes courtesy of Todd Pletcher’s Cutting Humor, second to well-regarded Bourbon War last out, and Mark Casse’s off-the-turf maiden romper Olympic Runner.

Good luck and happy Presidents’ Day!

War of Will photo (c) Hodges Photography/Lou Hodges Jr.

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Kentucky Derby Pedigree Profile: Mucho Gusto

The Bob Baffert-trained Mucho Gusto earned 10 points on The Road to the Kentucky Derby with his stylish tally in the Robert B. Lewis Stakes (G3) on Saturday. He upped his mark to three-for-four after his Santa Anita triumph over a sloppy, sealed oval under Joe Talamo.

Mucho Gusto was bred in Kentucky by Teneri Farm, Inc. and Bernardo Alvarez Calderon. He passed through the auction ring on four separate occasions. The chestnut brought $14,000 as a yearling at the 2017 Keeneland January Sale, only to be turned into a $95,000 at Keeneland September later that same season.

The colt was offered at the 2018 OBS March Two-Year-Olds inTraining Sale, but didn’t meet his reserve and went as an RNA ($55,000). Showing up as Hip No. 278 at the Fasig-Tipton Midlantic May Sale, Mucho Gusto brought a hefty final bid of $625,000 to his current owner, Michael Lund Pedersen.

Mucho Gusto is by second-crop sire Mucho Macho Man, who banked more than $5 million on the racetrack and earned his biggest coup in the 2013 Breeders’ Cup Classic (G1) at Santa Anita. The Adena Springs stallion finished ninth on the 2018 First-Crop Sire List and looks to have a promising future at stud. To date, his progeny have been versatile in winning on multiple surfaces.

Itsagiantcauseway is the first dam of Mucho Gusto. The 12-year-old Giant’s Causeway mare is also responsible for an unnamed yearling colt by Jack Milton.

Giant’s Causeway has been both a top sire and broodmare sire with a global impact on racing. His daughters have produced at least 106 stakes winners to date and two of this weekend’s Derby prep winners are out of mares by the ‘Iron Horse’ – Mucho Gusto and Withers (G3) hero Tax. The 2017 Horse of the Year and $15,988,500 earner Gun Runner was also produced from a daughter of Giant’s Causeway.

The winning Seeking the Gold mare Countervail is his second dam. She counts herself as a half-sister to a pair of stakes winners, including Canadian Horse of the Year Peaks and Valleys, as well as multiple stakes heroine Alternate. There is a fine amount of stamina and class throughout this female line.

Mucho Gusto is an interesting Triple Crown prospect going forward. He made two moves like a seasoned veteran in the Lewis when dominating his foes. The Baffert trainee is in the right hands and appears to be developing in smart fashion.

The pedigree of the sophomore is strong from a stamina perspective through the female line, though the jury is still out about Mucho Macho Man as a sire and how far his progeny will want to travel. How Mucho Gusto handles his future nine-furlong prep race will tell us a lot more.

Mucho Gusto photo (c) Benoit

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Trainerspeak a tip-off on beaten favorite Coliseum

About 30 years ago, a friend of mine had a horse with a very famous trainer. I talked to my friend and he told me that the horse had a chip removed from his knee arthroscopically that morning. Later in the day, I had to speak to the trainer and in a friendly manner asked him how the horse was doing? “He’s doing great. Breezed him a half-mile this morning.”

Clearly when trainers speak, you need to have a filter to get to the truth. We all knew that Easy Goer had a bad ankle, but trainer Shug McGaughey would not answer questions about it. It wasn’t in his interests to affirm that Easy Goer toed out real bad as it might have an effect on his stallion career. There’s no compelling reason to tell the truth or answer questions that haven’t been asked.

Over the years there have been some trainers that you can bank on what they are saying. Mike de Kock, Saeed bin Suroor and John Gosden are incredibly candid about how their horses are doing and what can be expected. But they are international trainers. In America, Todd Pletcher and Chad Brown treat interviews like they are making hostage tapes. Nothing but the bare facts.

So, when Bob Baffert was a bit cautious about COLISEUM‘s seasonal debut in the Sham (G3) last Saturday, it caught my eye. Coliseum was awesome in his career debut going seven furlongs in good time at Del Mar on November 17. He was one of the first horses that Baffert was training for Godolphin and it looked like all systems were go for the son of Tapit.

But Baffert made numerous references to Coliseum’s lack of maturity and focus. In his debut, he drew off once he cleared the field and was never challenged. The Sham would be run around two turns at Santa Anita so it would be a different test for Coliseum.

Not one to take what Baffert says literally (see Justify the day after the Kentucky Derby), I then went to Andy Harrington’s National Turf Clocker’s Report to see what he said about Coliseum’s workouts. Sure enough, Harrington’s report on his last workout before the Sham said, “Headstrong off the pole in :11.4, :23.1, :46.2 slowing some but not asked in 1:12.2. Has plenty of speed, would like to see him cool those mental jets.”

Usually, Baffert’s top horses finish their workouts strong and gallop out at least another quarter-mile. Maybe because he is a son of Tapit, but Coliseum runs fast early in his workouts despite all efforts to get him to do it the other way.

With this concern from his trainer, there he was entered in a Grade 3 stakes on January 5. I thought that was suspicious itself, but the public was not having any of it. Coliseum opened up at insane 1-9 odds and finally settled at 3-5. When the gate opened and he was a bit slow to get away, Joe Talamo had to steer him to the outside where he pulled hard around the first turn. Extremely wide every step of the way, at no point did it look like he would win and he basically ran one-paced to the wire, beaten more than four lengths in sixth place.

Can he make up those four lengths with a better start and use his speed to best advantage? Sure he can, but then the final time of the Sham was very slow. Even if he had won, there would have been doubts about who he beat. If Coliseum is going to get it together, it will happen in the morning when Baffert’s team gets him to settle early and finish full of run. Tapit colts tend to be flighty, but Tapit did sire three winners of the Belmont Stakes (G1), so it’s not like his offspring can’t get a distance of ground.

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Powell: A vote for Baffert and other Eclipse Award thoughts

With over two full days to spare, I submitted my 2018 Eclipse Awards ballot. That is an upset in itself. The last Grade 1 stakes race of the year was run on Saturday so there was no more reason to wait, and this year’s late season stakes races did have an impact on one of my choices.

The rule with the Eclipse Awards voting is that there is no rule. This year, I was a tough marker on international horses that only had one start in North America. As someone who follows racing around the world, I feel that horses that race here have a big preference. Is ENABLE the best turf horse in the world? Of course, she is. But with only one start here, how can I deny the many other deserving turf horses that toiled over here all year?

With few exceptions, I do not look at the Eclipse Awards as a handicapping exercise but one of accomplishment in 2018. If these horses were in a race in their division, I might not bet the one that I selected but gave my vote to the one that, in my humble opinion, accomplished the most. Also, these are my votes and not who I think will win. Most of them are logical and there will be many Mariano Rivera’s in this year balloting. Some are not.

The main topic of discussion has been Horse of the Year and I have already written why I think that Triple Crown winner JUSTIFY deserves the Eclipse Award over Breeders’ Cup Classic (G1) winner ACCELERATE. The debate fueled much constructive dialogue and even unearthed a fact that I forgot about.

In 1977, Seattle Slew became the first horse to win the Triple Crown while undefeated. He lost his next start by over 16 lengths while finishing out of the money and was done for the year. Still, he was voted Horse of the Year over the mighty Forego who won the Metropolitan H. (G1) and Woodward (G1) and carried impossible weights in the races he lost. The Triple Crown achievement trumps all.

What I forgot, but was pointed out by Sid Fernando in his column in Thoroughbred Daily News, was that Slew himself was victimized the very next year by 1978 Triple Crown winner Affirmed — despite beating him twice. I wouldn’t vote for a Triple Crown winner automatically as Horse of the Year, but it would have to be a pretty special situation to not do so. Unfortunately, I did not have a vote back in 1978 and didn’t have to decide between two all-time greats. My heart says I would have voted for Slew as he beat Affirmed decisively both times he faced him.

The toughest race for me was for trainer. Bob Baffert trained Justify and had a great year in other divisions. But, as I have pointed out before, Lucien Laurin did not win it in 1973 when Secretariat won the Triple Crown and Billy Turner was denied in 1977 as well. So, it’s not a slam dunk by any means.

Chad Brown had an incredible year, capped off by COMPETITIONOFIDEAS‘ win in the American Oaks (G1) last Saturday at Santa Anita. It was Brown’s 17th individual Grade 1 stakes winner this year, but Baffert kept winning Grade 1s to the end of the year when MCKINZIE bounced back to win the Malibu (G1) giving him another. Any other year I vote for Brown, but what Baffert did with Justify was history making. Not only did he win the Kentucky Derby (G1) with a horse that did not begin his career until February 18, but nursed him through the rigors of the Triple Crown. What happened after the Belmont Stakes (G1) is irrelevant and should not reflect on Baffert.

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Why the Preakness is my 2018 Race of the Year

When first thinking about the “Race of the Year” topic, I couldn’t settle on just one. Enable’s historic victory in the Breeders’ Cup Turf (G1) was on the short list, for the reasons pointed out by Vance Hanson – and I’d add for the intrigue of the Ballydoyle tactics that couldn’t contain her.

How about the race that turned out to be a key Breeders’ Cup indicator more than six months in advance? The April 14 Oaklawn H. (G2) served up a terrific finish between future Dirt Mile (G1) romper City of Light and Accelerate, the eventual Classic (G1) winner suffering his only loss of the year by a neck. Even better, the Oaklawn ‘Cap is shaping up as a sneak preview of the January 26 Pegasus World Cup (G1), when the same rivals will square off over 1 1/8 miles again.

Narrowing my criterion to the race that produced THE pivotal result, however, made the decision more straightforward: the May 19 Preakness (G1). The middle jewel of the Triple Crown presented Justify with his stiffest challenge, and closest call. The fog limited visibility but thereby enhanced the dramatic tension, and added ambience to what became an instant classic.

After Justify came out of his Kentucky Derby (G1) triumph with a bruised heel, that cleared up fast, Hall of Fame trainer Bob Baffert likely had to go as easy as possible during the two-week turnaround for the Preakness. Then Justify had to duel champion Good Magic into submission before edging away, and just holding the late thrust of Bravazo, in what looked like kid-glove treatment from Hall of Fame rider Mike Smith.

Had Justify not established just enough of a margin, or if Smith had misjudged it by a whisker, the result might well have gone the other way. And the arc of the season probably would have been different.

If Justify lost the Preakness, would he still have contested the Belmont (G1)? Or rather freshen up for the second half? If he did press on to New York anyway, and rebound in the third jewel, does he still retire with an ankle problem in the summer? Might connections instead have given him time off to heal and brought him back to burnish his resume at four?

But Justify rose to the occasion at Pimlico, stayed unbeaten, and kept the Triple Crown dream going through its fulfillment at Belmont Park. That’s why the Preakness is my 2018 Race of the Year.

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Kentucky Derby Pedigree Profile: Improbable

WinStar Farm, China Horse Club and Starlight Racing’s Improbable moved his sterling mark to three wins from as many outings with an impressive, five-length score in the Los Alamitos Futurity (G1) on Saturday. The juvenile colt capped off a fine two-year-old season for conditioner Bob Baffert, which also saw the youngster roll home in the Street Sense at Churchill Downs.

Improbable was bred in the Bluegrass State by St George Farm and G. Watts Humphrey. The chestnut passed through the sales ring on a pair of occasions, bringing $110,000 as a weanling at the 2016 Keeneland November Sale before fetching a final bid of $200,000 at the 2017 Keeneland September Yearling Sale.

He is by the late City Zip, who is responsible for at least 79 black type winners from 14 crops to date. He amassed six graded wins and achieved his greatest success when annexing the 2000 Hopeful (G1) in a dead heat. While he was a one-turn performer on the track, City Zip has become a very versatile stud who has sired top runners over various surfaces and distances. Champions Catch a Glimpse, Dayatthespa, Work All Week and Finest City, as well as 2017 Pacific Classic (G1) star Collected, are among the top runners he has sired.

Improbable is the first foal out of the winning A.P. Indy mare Rare Event. That lass has since produced an unnamed yearling filly by Quality Road and an unnamed weanling colt by Oxbow.

A.P. Indy has been a wildly successful sire as well as a stellar broodmare sire. The 1992 Horse of the Year has been the broodmare sire of more than 195 black type winners who have banked in excess of $170 million to date. And he has been in the top-five on the broodmare sire list for the majority of this decade.

He has had a big impact on each leg of the Triple Crown, too. A. P. Indy is the sire of 2007 Belmont Stakes (G1) heroine Rags to Riches, and his daughters produced 2010 Kentucky Derby (G1) star Super Saver as well as 2017 Preakness (G1) victor Cloud Computing. Game Winner, the top two-year-old in 2018, is out of a daughter of A.P. Indy as well.

The second dam of Improbable, Canadian stakes heroine Our Rite of Spring, is a three-quarter sister to dual classic-placed Grade-1 winner and top sire Hard Spun.

Improbable has been impressive from day one. The chestnut has shown improvement as the distances have increased this campaign, and the juvenile colt looks to have plenty more in the tank with the way he finishes his races. The colt is an extremely exciting prospect with a high ceiling. Improbable receives ample stamina through his female line and has the look of a classics-type horse going forward.

Improbable (c) Benoit Photo

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