December no help for judging Derby

By Ron Flatter  (VSiN.com) 

December 14, 2021 06:13 PM
flatter

It’s no longer a surprise when bettors swoop in and cut the futures price on the winner of a Kentucky Derby prep.

History repeated itself Saturday, when Slow Down Andy upset odds-on favorite Messier in the Los Alamitos Futurity. Trained by Doug O’Neill, the son of 2016 Derby winner Nyquist went from 150-1 to 80-1 at Circa Sports in Las Vegas. The rival Caesars Sportsbook at William Hill Nevada cut Slow Down Andy from 140-1 to 60-1.

A different kind of history says that any Derby futures bet on a horse who wins a December points prep is a complete waste of money. And never mind winning. How about even taking part in a December race?

Of the 50 horses who won the roses at Churchill Downs since 1972, only 14 even started a race the last month they were 2-year-olds. Eight of them — Ferdinand, Alysheba, Sunday Silence, Thunder Gulch, Charismatic, Fusaichi Pegasus, Giacomo and Country House — did not win. Cannonade lost, too, but he actually went 1-for-2 in the December before his 1974 Derby win.

That leaves another five Kentucky Derby winners since 1972 who won a December race during Derby prep.

The list includes the late Medina Spirit, who finished first in a maiden race in his debut on Dec. 11, 2020, at Los Alamitos on his way to that star-crossed victory last spring in Louisville.

Winning Colors, the filly who won the 1988 Derby, followed up her debut victory at Saratoga with an allowance score Dec. 27, 1987, at Santa Anita.

Then there were the horses who actually won an ungraded stakes race in December, less than five months before their Derby triumphs. Cannonade did in the 1973 Aqueduct Handicap, which had been known as the Aqueduct Stakes. Unbridled won the 1989 What a Pleasure Stakes at Calder. California Chrome was victorious in the 2013 King Glorious, the last stakes ever run at Hollywood Park.

Research reveals a grand total of one horse in the last half-century who won a graded stakes in the last month of the calendar year before his Derby triumph. That was Real Quiet, who finished first in the Grade 1 Hollywood Futurity in 1997 for none other than Bob Baffert.

This march through old racing charts is just a ponderous way of saying a December graded-stakes winner seldom translates into a cashable ticket in the Kentucky Derby. Since the sport traditionally winds down this time of year, and since trainers often rest their best horses to prepare for the rigors of the spring, and since historically there have not been many big races for 2-year-olds at the end of the year, why should 2021-22 be an exception?

Throw water, then, on any bets on Mo Donegal, the winner of the Dec. 4 Grade 2 Remsen Stakes at Aqueduct. His 35-1 Derby futures price at both Circa and Caesars carries no value because there is no optimism to be gleaned from the last 50 Decembers. The Remsen might have produced six Derby victors in its history, but it has yielded none since Thunder Gulch 27 years ago.

Fair warning then about the Los Al Futurity, Friday’s Remington Springboard Mile and the inaugural running of the Gun Runner Stakes at Fair Grounds on Dec. 26. There is obviously no history to speak of on the third race mentioned, but the first two never have spawned Derby winners at their current homes, and again, they are in December.

The moral to this Christmas story is steer clear of this month’s Derby preps for anything more than the merits of the races themselves. And save the link to this story until May 7, just in case history is made at Churchill Downs, and these words need to be eaten.

WHO’S HOT?

Rocket Dawg (35-1 Circa, 60-1 Caesars): Trainer Brad Cox never has won the Kentucky Derby, at least until Mandaloun gets a promotion over Medina Spirit, which seems inevitable. Cox is, however, likely to win his second consecutive Eclipse Award as the country’s top trainer, a reflection of his and his stable’s talent. This Classic Empire colt is getting second looks from horseplayers who pounced on his 100-1 odds last week. He won his debut by 5½ lengths at Churchill Downs last month (note: not December), and Cox had him back on the track and breezing the last two weeks. Bought last year for $375,000, Rocket Dawg is owned by Frank Fletcher, Clay Sanders and well-known horseplayer Marshall Gramm. If there is a fly in the ointment, that runaway, first-out victory did not rank in the top 30 Beyer speed figures for 2-year-olds in 2021, according to the Daily Racing Form.

Cyberknife (55-1 Circa, 75-1 Caesars): Here is another one from the Cox barn, but he is still a maiden. Al Gold owns this Gun Runner colt who finished second in a pair of fall races at Churchill Downs. Maybe it is the Cox name that has attracted betting attention (before this week he was 75-1 at Circa and 85-1 at Caesars). Or maybe it was a four-furlong workout at Fair Grounds on Sunday that was clocked at 48.8 seconds, third-fastest of 98 at that distance. Maybe there is not a leap of faith at play here, but it is certainly a big stride at these odds.

Slow Down Andy (80-1 Circa, 60-1 Caesars): The December schneid notwithstanding, at least it can be said he was the first horse to win the Los Alamitos Futurity at Los Alamitos without being trained by Baffert. His 85 Beyer did not merit a raised eyebrow, and neither did his green running style. But colts do not look raw forever.

WHO’S NOT?

Barossa (200-1 Circa, 150-1 Caesars): Forget for a moment about Messier. There was another Baffert colt in the Los Al Futurity, and he finished third in the field of five. Barossa had been 150-1 at both Nevada books, so Circa was alone in drifting him this week. This baby of Into Mischief was a $775,000 yearling, but he has shown little promise since he broke his maiden at Santa Anita on his third try. It would be easy to say he was not expected to flourish when he finished ninth as a 19-1 long shot in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile, but isn’t that the point? If not now, when?

Big Papa Steve (225-1 Circa): Who? Circa oddsmaker Paul Zilm got a request to hang a number on this Mr. Big colt, so he did. For now he is the only unraced horse in either book’s Derby futures. The only formal timing of him came in a Dec. 5 work at Golden Gate Fields, where he went three furlongs in 37.6 seconds. It took some digging to find that Big Papa Steve is trained by Reid France, who does most of his work with maiden- and claiming-level runners. The ticket written on this horse smells more like a souvenir and not at all like a winner.

Olympic Legend (450-1 Circa): At least this one got his picture taken. That was in late June at Los Al at 10-1 in a maiden sprint. A gelding by Street Boss, he has regressed in three races since that victory. He finished last, 19½ lengths up the track this summer, in the Grade 1 Del Mar Futurity. Twelve days later he was third of four starters, losing by nine lengths, in the Capote Stakes at Los Al. On Saturday he was last of five in the Los Al Futurity, adrift by 39¾ lengths. Three losses by a combined 68¼ lengths make Olympic Legend a tremendous Derby underlay, even at 450-1.

In addition to this weekly report, Ron Flatter’s racing column is available Friday at VSiN.com. The Ron Flatter Racing Pod is also available Friday morning at VSiN.com/podcasts. This week’s episode features Eclipse Award winning writer John Scheinman, celebrity interviewer and horseplayer Brad Blanks and weekend handicapping from South Point sportsbook director Chris Andrews. The RFRP is available for free subscription at iHeart, Apple, Google, Spotify and Stitcher. It is sponsored by 1/ST BET.

 

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