Is Coliseum deserving of his short odds for the Sham?

Coliseum_by_Zoe_Metz
Trained by Hall of Famer Bob Baffert, Coliseum is the even-money, morning-line favorite for Saturday's points prep for the Kentucky Derby, the Grade 3 Sham Stakes. (Zoe Metz photo courtesy of Santa Anita Park)

Las Vegas

It is like a storm cloud on the betting horizon. When you see the name Bob Baffert, an underlay is not far behind.

Take Saturday’s $100,000 Grade 3 Sham Stakes, a points prep at Santa Anita for the Kentucky Derby. A Baffert colt – Coliseum (1-1) – will be the favorite, probably odds-on by the time he and six other 3-year-olds start the two-turn mile some time after the 7 p.m. EST post time.

If bettors were to strip away the names of the connections, would a maiden winner with but one race to his name seven weeks ago merit all the money he will attract?

Four of the other six horses in the Sham have raced in stakes company. The likely second choice Gunmetal Gray (5-2) was a credible runner-up to Game Winner three months ago in the Grade 1 American Pharoah, an 8½-furlong Derby prep that was also at Santa Anita. But Gunmetal Gray is trained by Jerry Hollendorfer, a mere mortal of a Hall of Fame trainer who did not produce 20 debut wins last year for 2-year-olds the way Baffert did.

Coliseum is also among the four speed horses in the field along with Gunmetal Gray, the other Baffert colt Much Better (6-1) and Bob Hope Stakes runner-up Savagery (10-1). That could open the door for a hot pace that could break down and play to the likes of Gray Magician (4-1), a 9½-length maiden winner six weeks ago in his first start for trainer Peter Miller.

OK, the point has been made. Tunnel vision aimed at a bright light like Baffert can be hazardous to winning bets. But so can contrarian stubbornness. So making the rash assumption that Coliseum has not read all the press that Baffert has received, is he worth the money that will be bet on him Saturday?

He did produce a Beyer Speed Figure of 91 for his 6¾-length win Nov. 18 at Del Mar, where Joe Talamo gave him a hand ride for the seven furlongs. That 91 is the best for any horse in Saturday’s race.

There is also the tale of the workout tape. Coliseum has fired bullets in his last three breezes, including last Sunday’s 1:12 2/5 over six furlongs at Santa Anita. If there is a constant among Baffert winners, it is how well-prepared they look in the mornings before a big race.

Coliseum’s hype would have begun at birth, since he was sired by Tapit, consistently in the top five among American stallions for most of his 11-year breeding career. Then last summer Sheikh Mohammed and Godolphin brought him to Baffert, hoping that that would be the key to getting an elusive Kentucky Derby win. As Baffert put it, “that was (Sheikh Mohammed)’s way of thanking us for taking good horses to Dubai.”

In short, there is nothing quantifiable to suggest that Coliseum will not win Saturday. But like so many young colts with just one race to their name, the small sample size requires a certain leap of faith at the betting window, especially when the odds are so short.

The advice here is to take that leap and box Coliseum and Gunmetal Gray on top of or with Savagery and Gray Magician in trifecta and superfecta bets. And continue to beware of the underlay.

The Horse of the Year vote goes to ...

After wrestling for weeks with the Horse of the Year dilemma, I finally cast my vote this week for Justify.

It would be easy to say that I ultimately decided the Triple Crown was too important to diminish, even against the sterling résumé put together by Accelerate. And that would be accurate.

What finally convinced me to choose Justify, believe it or not, was Zenyatta.

Eight years ago she was named Horse of the Year even after she lost to Blame in what remains one of the most memorable Breeders’ Cup Classics ever run. Afterward there was a two-headed debate that felt every bit as difficult to resolve as Justify vs. Accelerate.

Zenyatta had gone 19-0 in her career before that memorable night at Churchill Downs. Five of those victories came in Grade 1 races in 2010. Blame went 4-for-5 with two Grade 1 victories, including the all-important, head-to-head matchup with Zenyatta.

Critics like me pointed to Zenyatta being kept at home on fake-dirt tracks in southern California, where she ran all but three of her races. I did not have an Eclipse Award vote yet, but I openly advocated Blame. Again, he won the duel at the Downs. Period.

Looking back on it, I was wrong.

The eight years since have been kind to Zenyatta. Even at the time, I thought that her loss was more impressive than her 19 wins. On a track not to her liking, she made up all but a head of the 16¼ lengths that she spotted the field at the start of the race. And she damn near won the thing.

Blame may have won the showdown that spectacular night in Kentucky, but that did not erase the fact that Zenyatta was clearly the face of racing in the year 2010, something that I pig-heatedly ignored back then. But that conclusion has stood the test of time far better than the finer points of that old debate.

Fast-forward to 2018. When comparing their records, Accelerate’s five Grade 1 victories against open company look better than Justify’s four Grade 1 wins against 3-year-olds. But Accelerate does not have a Triple Crown. Now, 100 years after Sir Barton achieved the first one, it remains the holy grail of U.S. racing.

In 2010, I felt that Eclipse Awards should be compilations of handicapping opinions. May the best horse win. But it has become clear to me in the years since that they go beyond that.

These awards in my opinion should reflect the often intangible impact horses have had on the sport in ways that go beyond past performances. Notwithstanding those three “Jeopardy” contestants who whiffed on it last month, if asked in eight years to name a horse from 2018, the first name that will come to mind is Justify.

Want to pick nit over how little time Justify raced in 2018? Fine. I respect that point. But to me, it was a positive that was emblematic of a unique, precedent-setting giant of a horse that flashed across the landscape like an ephemeral comet. And don’t forget, the Horse of the Year does not have to be around for most of 12 full months. Secretariat certainly was not in 1972, when he made his debut on the Fourth of July and was still voted U.S. champion as a 2-year-old. Now in an era when thoroughbreds are raced less and less, we had better get used to this.

Big moments are special, and they are indelible, and it may be a long while before we see something as special as Justify again. Precisely because his time on the track was brief, we should cherish it and celebrate it. And reward it.

How I voted for the 2018 Eclipse Awards

Of the 17 Eclipse Awards that will be handed out late this month at Gulfstream Park, I voted for only 15. Since I do not pretend to know anything about steeplechasers, and since I do not intently follow apprentice jockeys, I abstain from those categories.

Horse of the Year: 1st – Justify, 2nd – Accelerate, 3rd – Monomoy Girl

Oh, yes. In order to have three finalists in every category, voters have to throw in three choices, even though the first-place votes are the only ones that ultimately count for the trophies. So I added Kentucky Oaks winner Monomoy Girl to the Horse of the Year mix. She should have been 7-for-7 last year, but stewards at Parx made like bad boxing judges by taking her number down at the Cotillion Stakes.

Two-Year-Old Male: 1st – Game Winner, 2nd – Improbable, 3rd – Maximus Mischief

Baffert colts go one-two here, and why not? He went 32-for-60 with his 2-year-olds last year. Going 4-for-4 with three Grade 1 wins including the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile, Game Winner was in a league of his own. Improbable’s victory last month in the Los Alamitos Futurity pushed him ahead of Maximus Mischief.

Two-Year-Old Filly: 1st – Jaywalk, 2nd – Newspaperofrecord, 3rd – Bellafina

This was a body-of-work choice with Jaywalk going 4-for-5 on fast and muddy surfaces, collecting two Grade 1 wins including the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Fillies. Newspaperofrecord passed the eye test, especially in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Fillies Turf, but she was only 3-for-3, all on yielding turf.

Three-Year-Old Male: 1st – Justify, 2nd – Catholic Boy, 3rd – McKinzie

The question here was what to choose second and third. To me, Travers winner Catholic Boy’s versatility on dirt and turf put him just ahead of McKinzie. If there were a fourth choice, I would have made it Good Magic.

Three-Year-Old Filly: 1st – Monomoy Girl, 2nd – Midnight Bisou, 3rd – Rushing Fall

Some things are certainties. Democrats win D.C., Republicans win Utah, and Monomoy Girl wins this. Midnight Bisou was her chief rival and was awarded the Cotillion victory against her at Parx, so she deserves the most honorable of mentions. Three-time graded-stakes winner Rushing Fall was the best of the rest.

Older Dirt Male: 1st – Accelerate, 2nd – City Of Light, 3rd – Yoshida

City Of Light was the only horse to defeat Accelerate, splitting their two meetings, and he later won the Breeders’ Cup Dirt Mile. Yoshida won a Grade 1 on the turf and another on the dirt.

Older Dirt Female: 1st – Unique Bella, 2nd – Abel Tasman, 3rd – Marley’s Freedom

This was a tough call, since Unique Bella’s career was cut short by a summertime ankle injury. She and Abel Tasman each won a pair of Grade 1 races. But Unique Bella was most consistent going 3-for-4, and Abel Tasman was a disappointment in the fall. Marley’s Freedom had four graded-stakes wins to edge 3-for-3 Fault for the third spot on my ballot.

Male Sprinter: 1st – Roy H, 2nd – Imperial Hint, 3rd – Stormy Liberal

Yes, you can come home again from Dubai. Once he was united with jockey Paco López, Roy H was dominant in his last two Grade 1 starts, including a win in the Breeders’ Cup Sprint over the likes of Imperial Hint, another two-time Grade 1 winner. Stormy Liberal’s victory in the Breeders’ Cup Turf Sprint gave trainer Peter Miller the first and third horses in my vote.

Female Sprinter: 1st – Shamrock Rose, 2nd – Marley’s Freedom, 3rd – Finley’sluckycharm

In a flimsily thin category, Shamrock Rose emerged with only two graded-stakes wins, but one of them was the Breeders’ Cup Filly & Mare Sprint with Marley’s Freedom finishing fourth. Madison winner Finley’sluckycharm might as well have been the moe in this eenie-meeny-miny category.

Male Turf Horse: 1st – Glorious Empire, 2nd – Stormy Liberal, 3rd – Catholic Boy

In another division lacking a clear-cut champion or even a consistent champion wannabe, Glorious Empire’s first-place finish three weeks ago in the Fort Lauderdale was his third graded-stakes win of the year, and it came with a 107 Beyer. He also won the Grade 1 Sword Dancer, putting him ahead of Breeders’ Cup Turf Sprint winner Stormy Liberal – the key word there being “sprint.” Catholic Boy’s Belmont Derby win made him 2-for-2 on the turf, and that impressed me more than Heart To Heart, a two-time Grade 1 winner that faded badly late in the year.

Female Turf Horse: 1st – Sistercharlie, 2nd – Uni, 3rd – A Raving Beauty

A bumpy start led to a narrow loss in the New York Stakes. That was all that separated Sistercharlie from a perfect year. She was still 4-for-4 in Grade 1 races, including the Breeders’ Cup Filly & Mare Turf. Uni went 4-for-4 with a Grade 1 win at Del Mar last month. Yes, Enable beat the boys to complete an unprecedented Arc-Breeders’ Cup double, but she raced just the once here. I gave two-time Grade 1 winner A Raving Beauty the bob of the head for third.

Owner: 1st – Peter Brant, 2nd – Hronis Racing, 3rd – WinStar Farm, China Horse Club, Starlight Racing and Head of Plains

Between Sistercharlie, Raging Bull and Fog Of War, Brant collected six Grade 1 wins. Hronis Racing had five – all with Accelerate – but also had five other graded-stakes victories. The WinStar partnership had Justify and Improbable winning five Grade 1s.

Breeder: 1st – Fred Hertrich and John Fielding, 2nd – John Gunther, 3rd – Mike Abraham

Catholic Boy, Rushing Fall and Diversify were brought to you by Hertrich and Fielding, who were responsible for horses that accumulated four Grade 1 wins and four others in graded stakes. Gunther gets credit for Justify; Abraham for Accelerate.

Jockey: 1st – José Ortiz, 2nd – Írad Ortiz Jr., 3rd – Mike Smith

How to separate the brothers Ortiz. They were neck-and-neck in earnings with Írad first. But on my ballot I went with José on the basis of his 10 Grade 1 victories compared with his older brother’s six. Smith’s 13 Grade 1s included the Triple Crown.

Trainer: 1st – Chad Brown, 2nd – Bob Baffert, 3rd – Brad Cox

A close, tough call here. Brown’s 20 Grade 1 victories were delivered by 16 different thoroughbreds led by Sistercharlie. He also won 27 percent of the time he saddled a horse. Baffert was a close second with 20 Grade 1 wins, a second Triple Crown and his wild success with 2-year-olds. Thanks in large part to Monomoy Girl, Cox had a career year with seven Grade 1 wins last year.

Eclipse Awards finalists will be announced Saturday at 11:05 a.m. EST on Gulfstream Park’s simulcast feed and on XBTV.com. The winners will be revealed during the show hosted by Jeannine Edwards on Jan. 24.

Game Winner is winter-book Derby favorite

At odds of only 5-1, Game Winner is the winter-book favorite to win the Kentucky Derby. So what is the “winter-book favorite”? Since 2012 Churchill Downs used Johnny Avello’s Derby futures at the Wynn Las Vegas to make that determination. But since Avello moved on to DraftKings, he has not put out those odds for 2019. The next best thing we have is the William Hill futures, where the prices are posted more cautiously with less exposure for the book (read: shorter odds). In the last seven years Avello never had a horse higher than 7-1. The last time Churchill Downs showed a winter-book favorite as a Derby winner was Street Sense in 2007. By the way, after he won the Jerome Stakes on Tuesday at Aqueduct, Mind Control went from 80-1 to 60-1 to win the Derby.

Ron Flatter’s weekly racing column is posted every Friday morning at VSiN.com. You may also hear the Ron Flatter Racing Pod, posted Friday mornings at VSiN.com/podcasts. This week’s edition features Hall of Famer John Velázquez discussing his role as chairman of the Jockeys’ Guild and some of the horses he will be riding in 2019. Jeremy Balan of the Blood-Horse helps preview Saturday’s Sham Stakes and discusses recent changes at Santa Anita. The feature Racehorses by the Letters considers the best horse with a name starting with “I.” Ron also discusses his decision to vote for Justify to be Horse of the Year. The RFRP is also available at leading providers such as Apple Podcasts, Google Play Podcasts and Stitcher.

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