The Best Pal

This year’s version of the Best Pal, a GII 6f sprint for 2YO at Del Mar, is dominated by the presence of Instagrand. He is the 1/2 morning line favorite and a deserving one. Here is his maiden race, where he shows his stamina in the stretch convincingly.

He cost $1.2 million this past March and has been the subject of some serious hype since winning that maiden. On paper, he should dominate today. His Beyer Speed Figure of 88 towers over the field. And 2YO tend to be reliable, the opposite of what people think. Trained by Jerry Hollendorfer, for him to not win, he’d likely have to not like the track — something it’s hard to tell conclusively from the workouts — or regress off that big effort at the end of June. It was just one race and it’s easy to overstress in a sample size of one. That said, he’d seemingly like the extra furlong — and extra furlongs after that — being out of Into Mischief. He likely goes off better than 1/2, possibly even 1/9. Incidentally, odds-on in Graded Stakes is a historically positive return.

Can you beat him? If so, you’re likeliest to do so with Owning. His sire’s stud fee (Flashback) is only $5K, but he sold for $260K this past April.  A high multiple between the two is usually a sign of a fast horse. Also, Flashback is getting significant buzz as a freshman sire. Owning debuted for Simon Callaghan with Mario Gutierrez aboard with a 72 Beyer Speed Figure. Callaghan was the trainer of Kentucky Derby second-place finisher of Firing Line in 2015. The winner that year? American Pharoah. Owning could always improve in his second start and wasn’t favored first time out. He should appreciate the extra half-furlong. But he’s still overmatched by Instagrand.

Mason Dixon won a 150K Maiden Claimer — the type of races designed to let good horses run, but get away from the million-dollar Instagrand’s of the world. He’s extremely overmatched for Doug O’Neil and Flavien Prat. He should appreciate the extra furlong being by Union Rags. He’s likely to improve for O’Neil, who usually doesn’t have them cranked up the first time, but asking him to catch Instagrand is a tall task.

Sparky Ville would need to move forward significantly in the 2 months since he last raced. It’s not impossible, but still unlikely for trainer Jeff Bonde and jockey Gary Stevens. He has a very nice workout mixed in a bunch of average to below-average ones. He should like the extra distance, being by Candy Ride, but no match for Instagrand.

Synthesis is still a maiden, with 2 3rd place finishes to his record. He looks overmatched and he is. He doesn’t have the pedigree or the race record to be competitive here. He’s already run several times so we have more of a baseline. Trained by Keith Desormeaux and ridden by his brother, Kent, Synthesis will likely be 20-1 or more and has little chance to spring the huge upset.

Analysis: Based on his impressive maiden score and the high Beyer Speed Figure earned from it, Instagrand should romp in the Best Pal. His purchase price helps pad the argument as well. The most competition will likely come from Owning, who is out of promising sire Flashback and earned the 2nd best Beyer Speed Figure last time out. But it likely won’t be enough to hold off Instagram from getting his first Graded Stakes.

The San Diego Handicap

We move to the older horses this week, possibly sniffing out some horses for the Pacific Classic, Breeders’ Cup Classic or the Mile. The race is 8.5f on the dirt. While the race is still quite compelling, news came that last year’s champion, Accelerate, who this year has won the Santa Anita Handicap as well as the Gold Cup, had scratched. The scratch of Curlin Rules hurts to a lesser extent, who would have to be on his game and on the improve to win here. We have a field of 6 with several horses having run 100 plus speed figures in their careers.

The race begins for me with Dr. Dorr who cuts back in distance after tiring badly in the Suburban. He did not run well over the Del Mar surface last year and one has to wonder whether he’ll take it the track today. He made the first two starts of his career at Del Mar. Baffert’s horses are usually ready to run, but he also perhaps just wasn’t ready. He didn’t blossom until after leaving San Diego, initially over the turf in New York. His dirt speed had a breakthrough on his return to the races in March, topping out with a win in the G2 Californian, the primary prep for the Gold Cup. There’s a chance that the Suburban was him coming off form or it could just be a one-off bad performance due to the track. On his game, he’s the most consistent and fastest — it’s just a question of how you evaluate the uncertainty.

Dabster will be going the farthest distance of his career. He’s already won twice at a mile (and once at 7f) in 6-lifetime starts. How he reacts to the extra half furlong will determine whether he can find the winner’s circle. He’s a bit slow to win the race if he doesn’t improve, whether due to likely the distance or other factors.  Harlan Punch ships in from the East Coast where he recently won by 5 1/4 lengths G3. That race was run at today’s distance. He’s never run at Del Mar before. He’s run some high Beyer Speed figure several times in his career, including a 97 last time out.

Catalina Cruiser is undefeated in 2 starts and put up an impressive 107 Beyer Speed Figure in 6f sprint last May. His pedigree suggests distance so the stretchout is not out of the question. If he can repeat that number routing, he’s in the winner’s circle. At 8-1 on the morning line, he seems like a good dark horse bet. Two Thirty Five has had a nice run of improvement since breaking his maiden for 20K in November of 2017 (over this surface.) He’s really put it together for trainer Richard Baltas, but he’ll face a class test today. He won an N2X by 4 1/4 lengths last out in a field of 5. This race seems a bit tough for El Huerfano, who recently came in 4th — beaten 6 lengths — in the G2 San Carlos. He a bit too slow for today’s race, even on his best. It’s a return to routing, which should help. The result for him last year in this race wasn’t good; he was beaten 35 lengths.

Analysis: I would not be shocked to see Dr. Dorr in the winner’s circle. It’s easy to forgive the Surbuban. But I think there’s more upside to Catalina Cruiser on the stretchout and that’s my selection for the race. His two races are very nice and Union Rags/Mineshaft suggests the distance won’t be a problem.

The Los Alamitos Derby

A small but intriguing field goes forward in the GIII Los Alamitos Derby later this afternoon. One of the highlights of the short summer meet, it features 5 3YO’s going 9 furlongs for a purse of $150K. Horses that run well could find themselves in any level of 3YO races left this summer, such as the Pennsylvania Derby or even the Travers, or even the Pacific Classic against older at Del Mar with a lights-out performance.

The race begins with Ax Man, who was last seen getting destroyed by Indiana Derby (later today as well) favorite King Zachary in the Matt Winn. He was 1/2 in that race — he’s been the favorite in all his starts and odds-on-in every one but his debut. He’s trained by Bob Baffert. He’s put up two sub-par performances in his career — in the aforementioned Matt Winn and in the 7f San Vincente where he was run of his feet by Kanthaka. It’s possible he didn’t like sprinting and it’s also possible he didn’t care for the Churchill Downs surface. But we have to wonder if he just didn’t feel like putting his best effort forward on either of those days. His other three performances were dominant wins by open lengths. He has three solid works since the Matt Winn. He’ll likely be the favorite again today — how low you’re willing to go on an unreliable, but fast, horse is the question.

Blended Citizen returns from a disappointing Belmont Stakes performance for Doug O’Neil. He previously won the Peter Pan over Core Beliefs and showed the form that earned him a 4th place finish in the Bluegrass. He’s the most experienced runner in the field with 11 lifetime starts and was on an upward trajectory before running into Justify and 12 furlongs. He’s not as fast as Ax Man at Ax Man’s best — no one in the field is — but stands a decent chance to run down the leaders on the long Los Alamitos stretch. I’d be willing to draw a line through the Belmont Stakes performance. Kyle Frey–who has been aboard all year–keeps the mount.

Draft Pick took a while to break his maiden, but when he returned in May from a short break, he did it emphatically. He immediately turned around the next month and took the GIII Affirmed Stakes earning a career-best 92 Beyer Speed Figure in the process. He looks to continue that hot streak today and go for three wins in a row. Trained by Peter Eurton, he is the only runner with experience at Los Al, running in two maiden races here, with 2 third place finishes. He does not seem to have a dislike for the surface — a plus, as everyone else faces a question in this regard. Slight improvement, or a subpar effort from Ax Man, puts him on top.

Once on Whiskey qualifies as the “other Baffert.” He hasn’t run particularly fast and nothing about his workouts are notable. He was last seen finishing 3rd on Derby Day in a 1st level allowance for three year olds. He’s yet to stretchout — something that could favor this son of Bodemeister out of a Mineshaft Dam. He’s a bit of an X-factor, piloted by Flavien Plat, and could make some noise at the end. He won’t be a huge price because of his trainer, but he could be a reasonable mid-to-longshot to include in the late P4.

King Cause is the other “O’Neil.” He’s yet to show the speed necessary to win here today and was beaten by Draft Pick by 10 lengths in the Affirmed. He has some early speed which could challenge Ax Man and set things up for Blended Citizen to make a charge at the end.

Analysis: Ax Man has proven a bit unreliable, and while he can win, I prefer the improving Draft Pick to lay slightly off the speed and make a winning move at the top of the long Los Al Stretch. He’s on a roll and I expect it to continue. Once on Whiskey is intriguing on the stretchout and is playable at 8-1 or better.

Kentucky Jockey Club Stakes

What a day of November racing! We’ve got terrific stakes action from Del Mar, including the G1 Hollywood Derby. But I’m going to turn my writing attention to Churchill Downs for the GII Kentucky Jockey Club Stakes — a little before 6 o’clock Eastern time as the 11th race. It’s a 2 turn 1 1/6 mile route for 2 YO’s with a purse of $200K. When May comes around and the horses line-up for the Kentucky Derby, you’ll always looking for a win over the track — today is the day to get it. I won’t be focusing on it, but there also is the Golden Rod Stakes — with identical conditions for fillies. Oaks watchers should pay attention.

Here’s a preview of all the horses:

  • Gotta Go — He’s had success over the track (2 for 2) although all at one turn. Seems to like the surface and Ian Wilkes loves training these closers. Might just be a steal at 6-1, if you think the pace will be there.
  • DIamond King — He’s fast, but at Parx. In these Derby Trail races, I almost always automatically eliminate these entrants. The class check is too much, only received for the great ones, like Smarty Jones.
  • John TIppman — best lifetime performance last out over this track. Only fast enough for minor awards, but he may give some good value is the Trifecta is your bet.
  • Arrival — he’s a fast last out maiden winner; seems like another usual easy drop, but this is an 800K purchase. But, he’s a drop.
  • Givemeanimit — This guy is dropping down from 3 consecutive G1s; solid 4th (in a field of 13) at 60-1 odds in the Juvenile. In a GII, I really like horses that can perform at the classiest level and he had solid, not spectacular, outings.
  • Enticed — Skipped the Juvenile after a solid 3rd in the competitive Champagne. First time 2 turns — probably not a problem for this son of Medaglia d’Oro.
  • Promises Fulfilled — win over the track and an allowance win at Keeneland. First time 2 turns is a bit more of an unknown. He’s been working out great.
  • High North — a not very fast last out maiden winner; an automatic toss for me.
  • Reride — a bit of a puzzle. Ran great on debut and then returned to win a 2 non-winners of lifetime on soft turf at a mile. Despite these plusses, would seem to need to be faster to have a shot. That’s possible, given his first-time dirt routing.
  • Bravazo — On the board in stakes company in his last two  — that’s the likely ceiling today as well.
  • Quip — Stylish allowance win after a 12-1 maiden score. Always pay attention to these Winstar/China Horse Club horses. But still probably too slow to pull off the win.
  • Tiz Mischief — Another fast out last out maiden winner; unless it’s a special performance, I pass.
  • Lone Sailor — Like Bravazo, he’s been underneath in the last two races — both stakes. Unliked Bravazo, he might have the speed to win this one.
  • Peppered — A Canadian polytrack import. A good performance in the Grey, but it was too slow to win here today at Churchill Downs.


I like Enticed anywhere around 3-1 or higher. The class is there and already showing. I’m also giving long looks to Givemeaminit, dropping from Grade I company.

Good luck at the races!

Bob Hope Stakes

It’s time to get over that Breeders’ Cup hangover. As always, it was a great weekend for all horses and especially the 2YOs, with a win by Good Magic in the Juvenile. Chad Brown is taking over all surfaces, classes, and levels. But racing keeps going year-round — that’s one thing that makes it great. Today, we’ve got a 2YO sprint — of the challenging 7-furlong variety from Del Mar at around 2:34 Pacific Time. It’s the Bob Hope Stakes, named for the classic comedian hailing from my hometown of Cleveland, Ohio. A field of 6 will race for $100K. With the smallish field, let’s take a look at the whole field and see if we can find some value down the line. Importantly, it’s the 5th race on the card at Del Mar, completing what is always a nice P5 pool.

Here’s the rundown:

  1. Greyvitos (20-1): Still a maiden, he improved in his return to the races after a 4-month layoff. He’s still a bit slow and would have to enjoy the stretchout from 5.5f to 7f, something that’s not out of the question for this son of Malibu Moon.  “Blinkers on” may add some early speed, although his trainer is 0 for 9 with this addition. A deserving longshot, he could end up in the place or show spot, but most likely to be up the track.
  2. Mourinho (9/5): Baffert has been giving Drayden Van Dyke some serious mounts and this is one of them. A $625K purchase this past March, he won on debut with an impressive speed figure. He tired in the stretch of the Speakeasy and failed at 1/5 odds. “Blinkers off” for, perhaps, the best trainer in the North America, who excels with young horses. He’s obviously a serious contender and he may be overlooked a bit because of the presence of Run Away in the gate next door.
  3. Run Away (8/5): The knock on him is that he’s a bit slower than Mourinho — perhaps dominating (he’s 4 for 5) the division when it was weaker. He obviously likes to win and that includes the G2 Best Pal. He was the favorite in the Del Mar Futurity and finished third to a strong Bolt D’Oro. But my gut says no today — he looks like a horse who has peaked.
  4. Here is Happy (8/1): Debuted in a maiden claimer, which he won at 32-1. And then two stakes tries, including a good third in the Speakeasy. He’d benefit from some good pace in front of him — which I’m not sure is going to be there. If you do, he may be worth including on some deeper tickets.
  5. Beautiful Shot (5/2): The winnner of the Speakeasy, who beat Mourinho. A solid contender — he’ll need pace that I’m not sure he’ll get. But, predicting pace is dangerous terrain — so you could include him for safety.
  6. Italiano: An inexperienced maiden winner, he did beat Greyvitos last time out. Likely too slow to be able to run with this group — at least at this stage is his career.


Give me Baffert. I’m singling Mourinho. The race sets up for him and he’s faster than Run Away.



Will Bayern fool the public again?

I love Bayern. Why? Not because he’s an all-time great racehorse, even though he did win a competitive installment of the Breeders’ Cup Classic last year. Instead, I like him because he befuddles the public — never winning as the favorite and winning several times at high odds.

This year, he’s continued his pattern, at least on the losing end of the spectrum. Tomorrow, he may present an opportunity to fool the public once again. He races at Del Mar in the Pacific Classic — and will likely be a decent price. His morning-line is 6-1 and he is facing the great mare Beholder, who is certain to take a disproportionate share of public money due to her reputation and popularity.

Here’s Bayern’s complete PP for reference.

Screenshot 2015-08-21 16.24.48

Last year is covered in depth here, so let’s take a look at his three races this year.

Screenshot 2015-08-21 16.32.22

He was the 4/5 favorite in the GII Churchill Downs, a 7 furlong sprint on Derby Day. He broke slow — compared to his blistering starts of last year — and faded to finish last.

In the Met Mile, he was the 7/2 second-choice behind Tonalist, who had been 4 for 4 over the Belmont surface, including 2 G1 victories over the track. He broke slow again, was rushed to the lead, and faded to finish last once again behind 6-1 winner Honor Code.

He raced at Del Mar in the prep for this week’s Pacific Classic in the G2 San Diego Handicap. Favored once again at 7/5, he ran his best race of the year, but still significantly below his best efforts of the past. He broke better, but eventually lost a protracted battle with Appealing Tale (who has nabbed at the wire by Catch a Flight).

All three of these races have been shorter than the Pacific Classic distance of 10 furlongs (the longest was 8.5f in the San Diego). Bayern has shown that he excels at longer distances, running a career-best 113 in the 10f challenge of the Breeders’ Cup Classic. In contrast, last year’s debacle at Saratoga in the Travers was based on over-optimism following his impressive Haskell — he was originally targeted for the King’s Bishop — and is not representative of what he can do at the distance. With the public likely believing that Bayern has lost a step and not considering the distance question, he should offer value on Pacific Classic Day. And with his past record of fooling the public, it wouldn’t be a surprise to see him win at juicy odds once again.

Image: Scott Ableman, Copyright 2014.

In Review: The Oceanside Stakes

The public is a great pre-race handicapper. It is very skilled at taking the available data (i.e. past performances, visual impressions, word of mouth) and whittling it down to accurate estimation of the probability of winning. Their top choice — the post time favorite — wins more than any other horse. In fact, their probability estimates tend to be spot on down the line — with 2-1’s winning more than 3-1’s and so on. Overall, the crowd says with good confidence that “this is the best horse.”

This obviously doesn’t mean that the public’s choice always wins (the favorite only does that about 1/3 of the time). Randomness, variance, unknowns, and all the things that happen during a race take care of that. But it does mean that the public routinely finds the horse with the best chance of winning. Often, but not always, the public sides with the horse that has ran the fastest speed figure, particularly when done at today’s distance, surface, and class level. That is why situations such as the one that happened during the Oceanside Stakes yesterday during Del Mar are so fascinating.

Screenshot 2015-07-17 17.57.57

In the Oceanside Stakes — a restricted stakes for 3YO turf milers held traditionally on Del Mar Opening Day — the curiosity wasn’t that second choice Soul Driver won over front running turf-debuter Forest Blue. Instead, it was that the public made Papacoolpapacool the heavy 6/5 favorite over Soul Driver at 5/2.

Let’s look at the PP’s:

Screenshot 2015-07-17 16.09.14

Screenshot 2015-07-17 16.11.33

A quick glance shows the speed advantage of Soul Driver, who had run significantly faster than Papacoolpapacool and had done so more recently at today’s distance, surface, and class level. Soul Driver had run a 94 Beyer Speed Figure (BSF) in his last effort, but Papacoolpapacool had only run an 85 BSF in his most recent race and a career best 87 BSF. The public, which can be typically counted on to support such a speed advantage at the windows, did not in this case.

So why did the public not support the horse with the fastest speed in the Oceanside?

While there may have been some slight trepidation in the public’s eyes that Soul Driver would repeat the figure, the odds-setting seems much more about the overrating of Papacoolpapacool. Ultimately, the betting crowd for the Oceanside chose to heavily weight other factors at the expense of speed. The crowd was influenced by his prior stakes success, even though the speed figures were lower. Papacoolpapacool had earned a solid reputation in Southern California prior to today’s race, with some well-earned success on the track throughout the winter and spring. He had won 3 consecutive races and 2 consecutive stakes. In the first stakes win, he beat Soul Driver (prior to Soul Driver’s improvement) head-to-head. In the second stakes, he was dominant, winning by 4 1/4 lengths.  The public was also heavily persuaded by his performance in the G3 Penn Mile. He then shipped east for the Penn Mile, an increasingly attractive destination for top-notch 3YO turfers. He finished a closing 7th and only ran a BSF of 85, but ran with 1 1/4 lengths of winner Force the Pass, who went on to win the Grade I Belmont Derby. Despite the comparatively average BSF for the Penn Mile, he gained a tremendous amount of buzz out of this race, due, in part, to Force the Pass’ huge step forward to win at Belmont. He also had a visually-impressive finish in the Penn Mile. The hype growing behind Papacoolpapacool may have been further reinforced in the public’s eyes when Gary Stevens, who had ridden both, chose Papacoolpapacool. Finally, the public is often over-influenced by positive trainer stats. Papacoolpapacool is trained by arguably the hottest trainer in California in Phil D’Amato, with high ROI stats for almost every relevant category.

All of these factors combined to lead the public to heavily support Papacoolpapacool. It typically takes a good deal of intangible, or secondary, factors to move the crowd away from the horse with a significant speed figure advantage and the Oceanside Stakes was no exception.