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Handicapping Breeders' Cup proves to be specialty sport

By Ron Flatter  ( 

October 27, 2017 10:53 AM
Having Del Mar as a first-time venue for the Breeders' Cup will only make it harder to handicap the races.
© Ron Flatter

LAS VEGAS--At some point during the second day of the Breeders’ Cup, there are hundreds of conversations between bettors that will go something like this.


“How are you doing?”


“Losing. Tough card. How about you?”

“Not bad. I’m ahead. But not by much.”


And then someone like ESPN’s Kenny Mayne will happen along with a wry smile and a pocketful of money.


“Take a look at ‘Show’ bets,” was what he told me one year. “It’s a good way to make some money, if you bet enough.”


And off he went to make even more.


It may not be a glamorous way to make a profit, but there is merit in Mayne’s seemingly conservative strategy, especially when the 13 Breeders’ Cup races are loaded with more equine talent than any other race weekend all year. The fact that these 34th annual championships are at Del Mar for the first time will not make them any easier to handicap.


Everyone queuing up at the betting windows will be out to make a big score on a Grade 1 winner that has long odds in fields full of, well, more Grade 1 winners. But consider the last few editions of the $1 million Breeders’ Cup Betting Challenge, which annually attracts an elite field of horseplayers.


Just last year a New Yorker who has had a hand in buying successful racehorses for himself and others was sitting 47th in the BCBC going into the climactic Breeders’ Cup Classic. “I was originally going to make a Win bet on Arrogate,” Joe Applebaum said last fall. “But when I saw his odds drop to 8-5, I had to change those plans.”


Applebaum doubled down on the chalk, making a $13,000 exacta bet with Arrogate on top of California Chrome. That winning ticket wound up being worth $65,000, and it was the difference in the contest. Applebaum vaulted past the 46 rivals ahead of him, finished first and took home $364,000 from a $10,000 investment.


“It’s the largest live-money tournament,” Applebaum said. “To prevail here I feel incredibly fortunate.”


Exacta plays have made the difference in the last two Betting Challenges. By the time American Pharoah won the Classic two years ago at Keeneland, a horseplayer from Canada had correctly boxed the top two horses right before that in the Breeders’ Cup Turf.


“I got it right this time,” Tommy Massis said after he put $4,000 on Found and the favorite Golden Horn. That one-two result won him $85,000 and was the difference in his $320,682 victory in the BCBC.


Tempted to cut his losses two years ago, Californian Robert Traynor ultimately went all-in with an on-the-nose bet in the Classic to win the 2014 contest.


“Do I walk away with $10,000, or do I lay it out there?” Traynor said before he used both fists to back Bayern at 6-1. After waiting out a stewards’ inquiry that controversially went in Bayern’s favor, Traynor collected $71,000 from the Classic to put him over the top in the BCBC. That got him another $230,000 in first-prize money. Not bad for a $110 buy-in to a qualifying contest that got Traynor into the main event.


It does not always work this way, but the winners of the last three Breeders’ Cup Betting Challenges clinched their victories by backing horses that were among the top four wagering choices in their respective races.


That does not mean the big winners simply chased favorites the whole two days. When Canadian Peter Behr won the 2013 contest, he bolted from 28th place into first with a successful bet on 32-1 Ria Antonia in the Juvenile Turf. Even then he needed first-place finisher She’s A Tiger to be disqualified – and then a rival contestant swinging and missing on a big bet in the Classic.


Arduous homework is well under way on next week’s Breeders’ Cup card with past performances having been published on the heels of Wednesday’s announcement of the 209 pre-entries, which will be winnowed into the final fields with Monday’s post-position draw (6:15-8:45 p.m. EDT).


Searching for their own betting angles, futures players may find some value in horses that may be more locally popular with bettors next week at Del Mar than they are now on a wider stage. There is no better example of that than Lady Eli. The resilient 5-year-old mare overcame a year’s battle with laminitis to finish second in last year’s Filly & Mare Turf. In the past three years she has not started a race at odds longer than 8-5 in three years, but according to the European-based, she is a 10-3 second choice to the Irish-based filly Rhododendron.


Arguably the best 3-year-old in the U.S., Bob Baffert-trained West Coast is 5-1 at Wynn Las Vegas to finish first in the Classic with Gun Runner the 6-5 favorite. Since Baffert has won this race the last three years with 3-year-olds, it would not be a surprise to see the odds for West Coast to get shorter.


Of course the odds will have their biggest moves when it gets close to race time, and bettors will not be the only ones paying attention. One Hall of Fame jockey said he keeps an eye on the smart money, too.


“I use it as a little bit of a handicapping angle as well,” said Mike Smith, who has ridden a record 25 Breeders’ Cup winners. “All of a sudden you’ll see an interesting horse that you may not know as much about that’ll go from say 12-1 in the program to say 7-2, and you’ll go, ‘wow, interesting.’ These guys are smart. They’re not good handicappers just because they get lucky and they pick a horse here and there. It’s something to take into consideration.”


Winx looks for Cox Plate three-peat


Winner of her last 21 races, Winx (4-25) is a heavy favorite in Australia to win the $2.3 million Grade 1 Cox Plate, usually the top weight-for-age race in the southern hemisphere. It starts at 2 a.m. EDT Saturday (11 p.m. PDT Friday).


The problem this year as it has been through most of her winning streak is that the 6-year-old mare has scared off some of her best would-be challengers. Winx has been so dominant that the second betting choice in the race – Royal Symphony – is no shorter than 18-1.


Trained by Chris Waller and ridden by Hugh Bowman, Winx was drawn into gate 6 and will face eight others in the 1¼ -mile turf race at the unique Moonee Valley course in suburban Melbourne that has four counterclockwise turns and a homestretch of only 215 yards.


Racing notebook: Keen Ice is retired

  • Keen Ice, best known for defeating American Pharoah in the 2015 Travers Stakes, suffered an non-life-threatening ankle injury in training for the Breeders’ Cup Classic and has been retired to stud. The 5-year-old horse sired by two-time U.S. champion Curlin will stand at Calumet Farm in Kentucky. Keen Ice had odds of 12-1 at Wynn Las Vegas to win the Classic. 
  • Coolmore trainer Aidan O’Brien is on the verge of a record-breaking 26th Group 1 victory this year. His 2-year-old colt Saxon Warrior (3-2) is 2-for-2 and is the favorite to win the Group 1 Racing Post Trophy at 10:25 a.m. EDT Saturday at Doncaster, England. Two other O’Brien trainees – The Pentagon (5-1) and Seahenge (12-1) – are also among the 12 juveniles in the one-mile, straightaway turf race. O’Brien is tied with the late Bobby Frankel for the most Group/Grade 1 wins in a single calendar year.

Tune into the new Ron Flatter Racing Pod. This week Ron interviews Hall of Fame jockey Mike Smith and veteran racing reporter Jeannie Rees.

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