On The Comeback

by Ed Meyer

posted on November 8, 2008 in Breeders Cup, Handicapping | No Comments >>

Two weeks have passed to reflect on Breeders’ Cup weekend, and it’s time to think about what to make of the contestants that have not retired, and will begin appearing in the entries once again.

Three general handicapping rules come into play:

  1. When you spot an effort where horses were clearly all-out in the stretch, play against those horses next time out.
  2. When you see horses that never got to strut their stuff due to circumstances beyond their control, play those horses the next time they race.
  3. When you see an extreme bias, play against the winners the next time they race, and take a long look at quality runners that ran too poorly to believe that it was a true reflection of their capability.

This year’s Breeders’ Cup produced all three occurrences. Analysis of the fourteen races shows that only a handful of runners ran improved races, and most ran worse than their previous efforts.

A Pro-Ride synthetic surface affected the outcome of every Breeders’ Cup race not run on the turf. Horses won using a “slow early, late rally” running style in all races except for the slow-paced Juvenile, where the first three finishers ran 1-2-3 from start to finish. Winners Raven’s Pass, Midnight Lute, Albertus Maximus, Zenyatta, Stardom Bound, Ventura, and Muhannak each won with a style that allowed them to rally from far back entering the far turn, to win going away. While this style may be ideal on many synthetic tracks, it is not an advantageous running style for just about any regular dirt surface in North America. If any of these runners return to the races on the dirt in Florida, Louisiana, New York, or Kentucky, the late-rally style will go from an advantage to a disadvantage. Similarly, any front-runner that faded badly on the new Pro-Ride surface, has a legitimate excuse and should be considered as a contender.

Pro-Ride aside, it is a good rule of thumb that Breeders’ Cup champions will not run quite as well in their first post–Breeders’ Cup race. These runners were usually “all out” in their races, implying that their efforts are as good as they can give. Each was asked for everything in the tank, on a day when their trainers had every reason to get their horses to give their all-out best. This was probably the biggest challenge any of these horses will ever face.

It remains to be seen if Curlin will return. If he does, it stands to reason that his powerful wins in the 2007 Breeders’ Cup Classic and other top races last year, are efforts he can no longer produce in Grade One company. His strong efforts in the Triple Crown races, the Jockey Club Gold Cup (G1), and Arkansas Derby (G2), all showed similar agility and resolve. Since his triumph in Dubai, however, he has won three of five starts over various surfaces, but with decidedly lower speed figures.

Even the quality of the competition he beat was closer to Grade Three, rather than Grade One company. He may not have produced a top effort on Pro-Ride, but even if the race had been run on conventional dirt, there were reasons to expect him to run a rating closer to his more recent races, rather than the monster rating he posted in last year’s Classic. The Dubai trip had taken a lot out of many past athletes—including Cigar—and Curlin was no exception. If he runs in the Clark Handicap (G2), or returns as a five-year-old, he may not be the same horse that was once all but unbeatable.

Only the two-year-olds are likely to move forward over time. But the two juvenile champs face tougher challenges ahead. As distances get longer and they meet more seasoned foes, the wins will not come so easily. The next time they race they are going to be over-bet. Stardom Bound is clearly tops among the fillies, but Midshipman shows no such dominance over the colts. Expect the colt division to remain contentious right through the Triple Crown next year.

On the turf, the two-year-olds Bittel Road and Grand Adventure, are much more talented than their tenth- and eleventh-place finishes in the Juvenile Turf suggest. Trying to win on the Santa Anita turf course from post eleven and twelve was all but impossible. As three-year-olds, they will be major forces in turf racing. In fact, most of the juveniles can be expected to move forward from the four juvenile races, with many of the participants headed for bigger and better success down the Triple Crown trail. These great expectations apply not just to the winners—there are high hopes for many of the participants, and all of them are still maturing.

What to make of Well Armed and other Grade One winners that ran ten or twenty lengths up the track? When horses proven as win contenders at the Grade One level, run that badly on a big day, it’s forgivable if there are valid reasons for the misstep. Well Armed, for instance, had a bad trip and also couldn’t keep up with the quick mile-race pace, considering he was used to the paces of races run beyond one mile. That’s a legitimate excuse. Look to bet these types of horses when their trainers find them races to restore their confidence. Chances are that they will return to their competitive ways. The last thing the connections want is a second clobbering. The spot for their return is likely to be chosen with extra care and consideration (as opposed to simply aiming at the next high-priced stakes on the schedule). These bounce-backs are probably the best betting value you’ll get on these stakes runners.

Requirements to Play the Post Breeders’ Cup analysis:

  1. Any front runner that faded badly on the new Pro-Ride surface has a legitimate excuse.
  2. It is a good rule of thumb that Breeders’ Cup champions will not run quite as well in their first post–Breeders’ Cup race. These runners were usually “all out” in their Breeders’ Cup races, and are likely to bounce or at least slightly regress.
  3. Top quality horses that ran completely up the track are likely to return in spots where they can restore their confidence. A trainer of a talented runner will want to avoid another debacle at all costs.
  4. Juveniles can be expected to improve from the four juvenile races, with many of the participants headed for bigger and better success down the Triple Crown trail—not just the winners.