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In the horseplaying world, "Which horse do you like?" in its literal meaning, and "Whodoya like?" are two entirely different queries.
Handicapping Saturday's Pennsylvania Derby was a prime example.
Answer 1: I like California Chrome. He almost won the Triple Crown and he tries his hardest and has won a lot of races. He's handsome too.
Answer 2: 'Chrome? "NAAHHHH! I'm tossin' 'im."
The most recent true great horses were Rachel Alexandra, Zenyatta and Curlin. Two of them are a couple of my all-time favorites. But from a wagering standpoint, I did not like them. If you'd bet, you had to include them based on their immense chances of winning, but because of those chances, their prices were rock bottom, would not pay and would drag down any exotic they placed in. It got to the point with those three that you sat out the dance and just enjoyed watching them run. Not bad at all. Rachel even gave me chills a couple of times.
But there are no great horses these days, and it was clear at Parx Racing that the wagering world was betting with its hearts as 'Chrome went off at 4-5 - bet down from a reasonable morning line of 3-1.
Bayern snatched the lead from 'Chrome a few strides from the gate and never looked back, setting a new track record. 'Chrome finished sixth, so far off the TV screen it took me a half hour to figure out where he was. There was a dead heat for fourth.
I figured he needed the race to prepare for the Breeders' Cup, and coming off a layoff of more than 100 days (!) Victor Espinoza was not going to fire the afterburners in this race. They'll save that for the Breeders' Cup. There's also the plain possibility that California Chrome, career-wise, could be fried after his exploits earlier this year. (Speaking of which, a correction from last week: 'Chrome's connections received $200,000 in bonuses to appear in the Pennsylvania Derby; $100,000 each for winning the Kentucky Derby and the Preakness)
Modern wagering pools are not dominated by on-track handle anymore. Even though the 16,000-plus announced fans at the track - man, they looked like they were literally hanging from the rafters - looked like a civilian bunch who would bet 'Chrome just because, it's hard to believe those of us in the off-track cumulus hammered the horse so hard. I didn't touch him for nuthin'.
While the one-post figured to be an issue for 'Chrome, it ended up moot. The races all day were started one gate position out from the rail, so 'Chrome really broke from the two-gate.
He got a nice - not great - start and had the lead two strides out. That was it. Bayern and Martin Garcia, from the four-post, immediately bullied to the lead, deposited 'Chrome behind them and smoothly dropped to three feet from the rail - the yellow brick road all day - and the race was over before the first turn. Meanwhile, 47-year-old Edgar Prado punched C J's Awesome from the eight-hole to Bayern's right-rear blind spot and stayed there. California Chrome was trapped. He stayed that way until they turned into the stretch, but he was never going to catch Bayern, even though he had holes to his left on the rail and to his right. That would have been a tremendous turn of foot - one that I've never seen from 'Chrome.
Watch out for 'Chrome's post position if he runs in the Breeders' Cup. It will be important as he now seems fairly one-dimensional. He ran nearly identical races in both the Derby and the Preakness, from the five- and three-post positions, respectively. In both, he rated just off and just outside the early leaders, never with anybody directly in front of him, made his move on the turn and ran away. In the Belmont (two-post), it was General A Rod and winner Tonalist who did the boxing in, and after going wide, no way 'Chrome had the energy to finish the 12 furlongs in front.
As for Espinoza, I believe he lacks the ability to keep 'Chrome on the lead and in the open as the horse craves. Bayern hates being eyeballed and Espinoza did not show he could or wanted to do that Saturday. He had a stranglehold on 'Chrome, as if it would be one late run. He should have shot his horse to the lead, challenged Bayern, tried to control a slow pace, as Bayern did, and then hope to get 'Chrome a breather in the backstretch. If Espinoza was riding to instructions, they were lousy - unless 'Chrome's connections were not interested in winning. If he was improvising, trainer Art Sherman should seriously consider a jockey change.
Daily Racing Form's Dick Jerardi and NBC anchor Laffit Pincay III couldn't stop moaning after Untapable gallantly held off Sweet Reason and Jojo Warrior to grind out a win in the Cotillion.
Sure, it wasn't by open interstate as many of her wins earlier in the year. But if they'd been paying attention, they'd have known Untapable and Rosie Napravnik (Last week, I mistakenly identified Untapable's jockey in the Haskell; it was Rosie) battled against the bias of the 1-2 lanes' golden road and won by a length and a tail down the 4-5 lanes, a much tougher part of the course. It was a gutsy win by my account and all the hand-wringing may improve her price on Breeders' Cup Friday.
Super Saturday (4:30 p.m -7 p.m., NBCSportsNet), the menu of five Grade Is and a Grade II at Belmont, and two Grade Is at Santa Anita Saturday is not really "Super" if you want to use the superlative sense.
Breeders' Cup is more super and more important, as this week's races, once the highlight of Autumn, now serve as preps for the big weekend. But we've got a lot of quality horses in big races for big purses with lots of green passing to and fro through the teller cages. When the horseplayer gets paid, is that toing? Or froing? I'm guessing fro, and that's the one for me.
There's plenty of drama:
- Will I have enough time to handicap them all in the 12-horse 96th Jockey Club Gold Cup Invitational (Grade I, 10 furlongs, $1,000,000, three and up)? How will I choose between Wicked Strong (3-1 morning line favorite and Jim Dandy winner), Tonalist (Belmont winner), V.E. Day (Travers winner) and Moreno (Whitney winner)? I don't know, but I'll also be planting some beans on Micromanage and Zivo.
- What will my prices be in the Joe Hirsch Turf Classic Invitational (Grade I, 12 furlongs turf, $600,000, three and up)? It's a talent even-steven including 5-2 favorites Big Blue Kitten and Real Solution, coupled for wagering purposes, United Nations and Sword Dancer winner Main Sequence, new long-distance dabbler Medal Count, still only three years old, and the up-and-down Imagining.
- Can anybody beat Palace (2-1 morning line favorite) in The Vosburgh Invitational (Grade I, 6 furlongs, $400,000, three and up)? The likely characters to land the coup de grace seem to be Happy My Way, the in-and-out Private Zone or Coup de Grace.
- Did Stopchargingmaria trainer Todd Pletcher make the right decision in scratching out of last week's Cotillion and entering her in the 76th Beldame Invitational (Grade I, 9 furlongs, $400,000, fillies and mares three and up)? Everything on paper says yes, but they run the race on dirt.
- What are the chances of Whatsdachances closing into the extra furlong in the Flower Bowl Invitational (Grade I, 10 furlongs turf, $600,000, fillies and mares three and up)? If Beverly D. runner-up Stephanie's Kitten gets the softer ground she enjoys so much, not much.
- Out in La La Land, Santa Anita to us big-shoulders types in the Midwest, will Shared Belief extend his boffo run in his quest for kudos in the category Best Horse in America Even Though He Didn't Run This Year Before May 26? The cameras will love him in the Awesome Again (Grade I, 9 furlongs, $300,000, three and up). If you're nitpicking, he didn't beat much in his one race on dirt in the Los Alamitos Derby, he's never run at Santa Anita and he trains and has raced mostly on the fake stuff. Will he bounce after the 115 Beyer Speed Figure in the Pacific Classic and the 47-and-3-fifths drill on Tuesday? Hold the phone, Watson! Are you going to try to beat the other Michael (Smith) and the finest steed in the land? Yep, and I'm gonna use Bird E House (50-point Beyer improvement in his last) to do it.
- Can anybody beat Beholder in The Zenyatta (Grade I, 8.5 furlongs, $300,000, fillies and mares three and up)? Well, tiz possible if you're willing to use Tiz Midnight.
One of the big problems with racing is that the horses don't really run for any great number of years. If they're any good, they make a splash and then head directly to the baby-making barn. Except for the geldings, of course.
There have been a number of retirements lately worth noting.
Will Take Charge, last year's three-year-old champ, was retired after some wear and tear was detected. In a highly respectable campaign last year, the D. Wayne Lukas trainee won in order, the Smarty Jones, Rebel, Travers and Pennsylvania Derby. His Breeders' Cup Classic last year was simply thrilling. In a patented, dramatic dash from the second pack, he swung outside, put his head down and poured on the coals, finishing a diminishing nose to Mucho Macho Man, who I don't think even saw him. Twenty more yards, and . . .
The Unbridled Song colt out of the Dehere mare Take Charge Lady took best-man money in the Donn, Santa Anita Handicap, Stephen Foster and Whitney Handicap this season.
One horse who did run for years, was the gelding Game On Dude, the Left Coast runner who did truly historic things.
Seven years old now, trained by Bob Baffert and partly owned by interests including baseball's Joe Torre, 'Dude won the Santa Anita Handicap three times, the only horse ever to do so. The Awesome Again colt out of Devil His Due mare Worldly Pleasure is the only horse to win California's big three races in one year (2013): Santa Anita Handicap (The Big 'Cap), Pacific Classic and Hollywood Gold Cup (twice winner). He won 14 graded stakes races, eight of them Grade Is.
Just this spring, he broke the Big 'Cap race record, previously held by the legendary Affirmed, by one-fifth. Will Take Charge and Mucho Macho Man finished second and third.
Baffert said 'Dude has had a target on him for awhile. "It's gotten to the point where there is always going to be some horse who is going to be sacrificed by running with him and forcing him into ridiculous fractions." He said this was particularly true in this year's Pacific Classic, where he finished fourth.
This 'Dude knows where his car will be parked: the Hall of Fame.
Princess of Sylmar had one big year, but what a year it was. The Majestic Warrior mare out of the Catienus mare Storm Dixie, swept the Kentucky Oaks, Coaching Club American Oaks, Alabama Stakes and Beldame Stakes in 2013. She came down with thumps, spasms of her diaphragm.
In a racing double-take, we hold out hope we'll see Palace Malice in the starting gate next year.
After being announced September 5th as retired because of a leg bruise, it was then revealed that Three Chimney Farms bought a 50 percent stake in the horse and has been told by vets that he may be able to run next year, after some rest.
The son of Curlin, 'Malice won the Belmont Stakes and Jim Dandy in 2013 and was rolling this year with wins including the Gulfstream Handicap and Metropolitan Handicap (Met Mile). His disappointing sixth in the Whitney in August as the favorite raised a red flag on his health. Here's hoping.
Thomas Chambers is our man on the rail. He welcomes your comments.
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