It is probably the most dubious, misinterpreted, overused tool available to horseplayers.
Readily available and absolutely free, it is worth every cent that it costs to read – and every cent that actually goes into it.
Yet the morning line endures. It has been around so long that Benny Southstreet sang about it 70 years ago in Guys and Dolls.
But that does not make it a good barometer. There is no better example of that than Saturday at Oaklawn Park, where trainer Bob Baffert’s highly regarded colts Charlatan and Nadal are the morning-line favorites in the two divisions of the Grade 1 Arkansas Derby. The oversubscribed race drew 22 entries, 18 of which were still standing Thursday night for the $500,000 races that are the last known points preps for the Sept. 5 running of the Kentucky Derby.
This is not to throw shade at Charlatan (1-1), the heavy favorite in the first division Saturday at 6:29 p.m. EDT, or Nadal (5-2), the likely top choice in the second division at 7:43 p.m. This is about the search for value underneath them – and the underscoring of a misleading estimate in the second race.
Drawn wide in the second division, Wells Bayou has won four of his five races, including last month as the 3-1 favorite in the Grade 2 Louisiana Derby. He is well regarded, having never started a race at odds longer than 8-1.
King Guillermo is in the same division. As a maiden winner that was twice a beaten favorite in two other ungraded races, he came out of nowhere nearly two months ago. Stalking a pedestrian pace, the colt owned by former major-leaguer Víctor Martínez pulled off a 49-1 upset to win the Tampa Bay Derby.
In spite of the widely held belief that his victory was a fluke, King Guillermo (3-1) is somehow the second choice on the morning line ahead of Wells Bayou (7-2). It is probably even a stretch to believe that he will attract more money than Storm The Court (6-1), the astonishing 45-1 Breeders’ Cup Juvenile winner that has nevertheless been in the top four of his last four graded-stakes starts.
This is not to suggest that King Guillermo will lose the race. To the contrary. His post-time odds figure to be much longer than 3-1 and, therefore, a potential option for value players.
The problem here is that morning lines are not all alike. They are written by track handicappers who are supposed to use them as a tool to provide the public with a credible forecast of the post-time odds. Jon White at Santa Anita and Joe Kristufek at Arlington Park and Kentucky Downs come to mind right away as two of the best in the business.
Unfortunately, some morning lines reflect the biases of authors who are not staying in their lanes. This has been apparent lately at Oaklawn Park, where the morning line has led to some “SMH” declarations on social media.
Two weeks ago Serengeti Empress brought a March victory in the Azeri and two other graded-stakes wins to the Grade 1 Apple Blossom Handicap. It seemed obvious that she would be the favorite. But on the morning line she was the 4-1 third choice. Despite never having started a route race, Come Dancing was forecast to be the 3-1 favorite. In reality Serengeti Empress closed a 2-1 favorite, and Come Dancing went off at 8-1, no better than the sixth choice.
Every morning-line maker will write a clunker once in a while, and that should serve as the more cogent warning. It is as important to examine each horse’s past odds in forecasting its value. It some cases the morning line can be a good clue. But not this weekend.
If we are to believe that Benny Southstreet was silly enough to be “pickin’ Valentine, ’cause on the morning line a guy has got him figured at 5-9,” then we have learned nothing in the last 70 years.
Racing notes and opinions
Charlatan might not be better than Nadal. But of Baffert’s two 3-year-old colts at Oaklawn Park on Saturday, Charlatan is more likely to win his division of the 1⅛-mile Arkansas Derby. Already drawn into the easier side of the split, the task got easier when the other pure speed horse in the race – Shooters Shoot – was scratched because of a fever. Making his stakes debut, Charlatan has two triple-digit Beyer Speed Figures where none his rivals this weekend have any. Martín García should be able to take him to the lead and cruise to victory, making him all the more attractive as a single play to start the all-stakes Pick 3. With blinkers off Anneau d’Or (6-1) is worthy of inclusion in vertical bets in the first division, which is scheduled for 6:29 p.m. EDT.
Joel Rosario and Nadal will not have the luxury of a loose lead in the second division. Wells Bayou will also try to get to the front, but he got stuck with the outside post. The value play will be with Steve Asmussen’s mid-pack starter Silver Prospector (10-1), a horse best suited to the fast track that is forecast for this weekend. Nadal and Wells Bayou must be included, though, both horizontally and vertically.
Combatant (4-1) is a tepid favorite in Saturday’s loaded renewal of the $600,000 Grade 2 Oaklawn Handicap, a 1⅛-mile race for older horses. Recently bought by the Hronis brothers and transferred to California trainer John Sadler, he is one of 10 graded-stakes winners in the field of 14. His first-place finish in the Santa Anita Handicap followed an impressive, third-place finish from a wide draw in a Santa Anita Grade 2. Combatant will be my key horse with Tacitus (9-2) and Warrior’s Charge (8-1) also on my tickets. The Oaklawn Handicap is Saturday at 7:04 p.m. EDT.
The global favorite in futures betting for the Sept. 4 Kentucky Oaks, the front-running Venetian Harbor (2-1) is a legitimate first choice on the morning line for Friday’s $400,000 Grade 3 Fantasy Stakes, a points prep for the Oaks. Trained by Richard Baltas and ridden by Flavien Prat, she won her last two races including a Grade 2 by an average of 10 lengths. But she is unlikely to have her way setting the pace this weekend. Gulfstream Park Oaks winner Swiss Skydiver (6-1) may also try to lead the whole way. After finishing first in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Fillies, British Idiom (5-2) was a beaten favorite finishing second in the February running of the Rachel Alexandra at the Fair Grounds and is likely to be in mid-pack on the backstretch. Presuming early speed will burn out late, the play here will be with Shedaresthedevil (12-1). Since being transferred to trainer Brad Cox, she has a narrow second and a Grade 3 win in two starts over the 8½-furlong course at Oaklawn Park. The hope is that Joel Rosario will ride her into position to make the first run at the leaders turning into the stretch. Post time for the Fantasy is Friday at 6:09 p.m. EDT.
Some tracks that would normally be open now if not for the coronavirus are being prepared for racing soon, albeit without fans. Churchill Downs was approved for opening of its stables Monday, May 11, with competition expected to begin late this month. Anticipating a possible breakthrough with leaders in Los Angeles County, Santa Anita Park issued a stakes book Thursday with a target date of Friday, May 15, to resume its winter-spring meet. The New York Racing Association announced its intention to start the delayed spring-summer meet at Belmont Park but did not set a date. Tampa Bay Downs confirmed its receipt of approval to extend its current meet through May 30.
Secretariat (7-2) is the morning-line favorite for this weekend’s imaginary race of the 13 Triple Crown winners. With the help of Churchill Downs the computer simulation will be brought to life on NBC-TV and Horse Racing Radio Network. Citation (4-1), Seattle Slew (5-1) and Affirmed (5-1) also carry short odds, but they will carry no handle. Although no legal bets will be taken, ChurchillDowns.com is taking donations from fans declaring their choice of a winner. The money will go to charities that are helping in the coronavirus emergency. The race will air Saturday at about 5:45 p.m. EDT.
Ron Flatter’s weekly racing column is posted every Friday morning – more frequently for big races – at VSiN.com. You may also hear the Ron Flatter Racing Pod posted Friday mornings at VSiN.com/podcasts. On the current episode Hall of Fame trainer Bob Baffert discusses his Arkansas Derby favorites Charltan and Nadal and admits that he has considered moving his stable from southern California. Quantitative stock analyst and horseplayer Tony Zhou talks about the realities and myths of computer handicapping. VSiN’s Vinny Magliulo and Japan racing expert Kate Hunter handicap this weekend’s Arkansas Derby and Tennō Shō. The Ron Flatter Racing Pod is available via Apple, Google, Spotify, Stitcher and at VSiN.com/podcasts and is sponsored by 1/ST BET.