Not to minimize the tragedy of losing 21 racehorses to fatal track injuries, but the crisis at Santa Anita and the indefinite shutdown of racing and training there has thrown a big pothole into the road to the Kentucky Derby.
Easier to fix that than to find whatever is wrong with a racetrack that has turned more deadly the past two months than it has been the last two years of winter-spring meets combined.
From a bettor’s point of view, the postponement of Saturday’s Big ’Cap card means the two shortest-priced 3-year-olds in Derby futures betting will not be able to race as scheduled in the San Felipe Stakes, a virtual win-and-you’re-in points prep for Kentucky.
Trainer Bob Baffert’s Grade 1 winners Game Winner and Improbable have yet to race this year. That makes it tougher to bet on them in the latest Kentucky Derby Future Wager, which Churchill Downs opens Friday at noon EST to nationwide betting through the weekend.
Instead of being able to see the Baffert pair match up in the San Felipe, bettors who back either of them must go on blind faith that they will be as good now as they were when we last saw them late last year. With that in mind, the price may not be right.
Last seen winning the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile in November, Game Winner (5-1) is the morning-line favorite in the KDFW. Coming off a December win in the Los Alamitos Futurity, Improbable (8-1) is the second choice. Since this third of four KDFW pools is pari-mutuel, the odds you see at the time of a bet will not necessarily be the odds you wind up with Sunday at 6 p.m. EDT, when the pool closes. That underscores how important it is to wait for Saturday’s prep races – the Gotham, the Tampa Bay Derby and the Jeff Ruby Steaks – before placing a KDFW bet.
Consider this. The third choice in the KDFW – Jerry Hollendorfer’s well-rested Instagrand (10-1) – could finish a badly beaten favorite in the Aqueduct at Gotham. He would then wind up at longer odds when the pool closes Sunday night, and everyone betting on him this weekend will be holding that price. So those who bet before the Gotham will reap no desired benefit from taking a chance on him beforehand.
The domestic alternative is the fixed-odds future book at William Hill, where the numbers are even less attractive for the top choices. Game Winner is 9-2, Improbable 6-1 and Instagrand 8-1. Off-shore bookmakers offer better prices, but the usual caveats apply ranging from their legality here to their reliability anywhere. There is always Europe, where Derby betting is the most attractive available – provided you know someone there or can fly cheap.
If The Stronach Group reschedules the San Felipe for next Saturday, then Baffert may be able to move forward with minimal inconvenience and still race Game Winner and/or Improbable in the Santa Anita Derby on April 6, meaning a three-week break instead of four. The only difference next week is that the KDFW will not be open; the last pool is April 5-7.
But if crisis management keeps Santa Anita closed for a protracted while, then Baffert will be faced with the need to ship his top colts out of state to get races into them. He already put Much Better on a flight to challenge Instagrand in the Gotham. He figures to send Mucho Gusto on the road either next week to the Rebel Stakes in Arkansas or to the Sunland Derby near El Paso. And there is still the matter of where to put Roadster after his allowance victory at Santa Anita last week.
No matter what Baffert decides to do with Game Winner and Improbable, and no matter when Santa Anita reopens, the learning curve on the current 3-year-old crop is dwindling. So is the calendar, what with only 57 days left until they run for the roses. One more thing that will be dwindling is the odds for the horses that continue down the Derby trail. In fact, the number of horses will be dwindling.
With fewer races squeezed into the time left until May 4, the postponement of one of the most important preps of the year will not help bettors at all. Then again, that is hardly a priority right now.
Instagrand graduates to Gotham favorite
Jerry Hollendorfer looked like a sage when he decided to get out of a potential showdown with Game Winner and Improbable when he decided last week to send Instagrand to the $400,000 Grade 3 Gotham Stakes, a one-turn mile Saturday at 5:09 p.m. EST at Aqueduct, New York.
There is a lot of early speed in this race with morning-line favorite Instagrand (1-1), Not That Brady (5-1), Much Better (10-1), Knicks Go (12-1) and Tikhvin Flew (12-1) all showing a penchant for wanting the lead.
Instagrand won his two sprints last summer by 10 lengths each, but he will be very short priced moving up to his first time going a mile. Not That Brady lost by a just head to Tax last month in the Withers, and he has been working well coming into a race where he cuts back from nine furlongs. Baffert gave Much Better a confidence-building allowance win last month, and Mike Smith rides him again. Knicks Go looks like he overachieved in the Breeders’ Futurity and Breeders’ Cup, missing the board twice as a 3-year-old. With the worst draw in the field of eight, Tikhvin Flew comes in for Steve Asmussen, but he was a beaten favorite last month in the Jimmy Winkfield last month, also at Aqueduct.
Freshened after winning the Jerome on Jan. 1, Mind Control (9-2) could have the right stuff when it comes to staying off the pace, but if the price shortens from the morning line, he may not be the best value play.
If the early speed falls apart, this sets up well for the closer Haikal (6-1). He responded to a well-timed, right-handed whip from Rajiv Maragh last time out to get past Joevia and Tikhvin Flew in the Jimmy Winkfield. That was impressive enough for me to jump in on him again in the Gotham.
Win Win Win will be backed at Tampa Bay
After posting a Beyer Speed Figure of 99 in winning by 7¼ lengths in the seven-furlong Pasco Stakes, Win Win Win (5-2) returns to the scene of that triumph, racing as the morning-line favorite in a speed-laden, $400,000 Grade 2 Tampa Bay Derby on Saturday at 5:25 p.m. EST at Tampa Bay Downs.
Grade 3 Sam F. Davis winner Well Defined (7-2), Todd Pletcher trainee Outshine (8-1), Zenden (8-1), Admire (12-1), Tacitus (12-1), The Right Path (15-1) also figure to be up front going into the first turn of the 8½-furlong race around two turns. Fifth and 12th in his only two stakes, Dream Maker (4-1) is likely to work from just off the pace.
The thought here is that Well Defined looks the best in this field, and Win Win Win cannot be ignored. But the price plays and exotic fillers will include Outshine coming off a bullet work last weekend as well as hot jockey Samy Camacho on board Zenden, despite his outside draw in the field of 11.
Somelikeithotbrown is favored in Ruby
The morning line does not reflect how wide open the field of 11 looks for the $200,000 Grade 3 Jeff Ruby Steaks on Saturday at 6:37 p.m. EST. The eight-furlong on the all-weather track at Turfway Park near Cincinnati is the only one of the three preps this weekend that will not be a virtual win-and-you’re-in for the Kentucky Derby.
Somelikeithotbrown (8-5) was third in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Turf last year. He is coming off a stakes win over this same track, and he will want a part of the early lead. But Tyler Gaffalione is the third different rider for Mike Maker in as many races.
Making a move up in class, Skywire (3-1) is 2-for-2, joining Mark Casse’s barn in time for a six-length win in the slop last month at Gulfstream Park. Five Star General (6-1) could try to lead the whole way coming off a troubled sixth in the Sam F. Davis to make his first start off dirt. The closer Dabo (10-1) is 0-for-3 since breaking his maiden and moving to Dale Romans’s barn, and there may not be enough speed here for him to reel in.
I will take a shot on Dynamic Racer (12-1). He breaks from the rail and will challenge for the early lead. Although he faded to second behind Somelikeithotbrown as a 29-1 shot last time out, I will take a chance that he continues to take a shine to this track where he overcame trouble to win a January allowance.
Ron Flatter’s weekly racing column is posted every Friday morning at VSiN.com and more frequently during coverage of big races. You may also hear the Ron Flatter Racing Pod, posted Friday mornings at VSiN.com/podcasts. The Daily Racing Form’s Marty McGee helps preview the Tampa Bay Derby, the San Felipe, the Gotham and the Jeff Ruby. Trainer Greg Sacco discusses his colt Mind Control, one of the contenders in the Gotham. The Racehorses by the Letters feature looks at the best horse starting with the letter “R,” and the third pool of the Kentucky Derby Future Wager from Churchill Downs is previewed.
A pop-up edition of the Ron Flatter Racing Pod was posted this week dedicated to the Santa Anita crisis and the indefinite suspension of racing there. Horse owner-handicapper Jon Lindo was the guest, and that edition of the RFRP is still available here. The RFRP is also available at providers such as Apple Podcasts, Google Play Podcasts and Stitcher.