The flavor of the week is chalk in Breeders’ Cup futures

Code_of_Honor_-_Travers
Hall of Fame rider John Velázquez rode Code Of Honor to victory in last week’s Travers Stakes, moving him up to second choice in Breeders’ Cup Classic futures. (Eclipse Sportwire photo courtesy of the Breeders’ Cup)

Las Vegas

 

A week ago Code Of Honor was branded as a horse that was regressing. He was regarded as an afterthought in the wide-open quest for the 3-year-old championship that seemed to have passed him by.

 

What a difference a win in the Travers makes. Now Code Of Honor is the second choice in futures betting to win the Breeders’ Cup Classic. And he is very much in the conversation again for an Eclipse Award.

 

No better than 14-1 in off-shore Breeders’ Cup betting and 16-1 in Europe before last week, trainer Shug McGaughey’s colt is now 6-1 at Bovada, 8-1 at US Racing and a consensus 8-1 in Europe, according to Oddschecker. Whitney Stakes winner McKinzie remains a clear favorite to win the Classic at odds between 5-1 and 6-1.

 

The capricious perception of Code Of Honor does not end there. In media polls posted this week, he made his debut at number 10 on the National Thoroughbred Racing Association’s survey that also includes fillies, mares and turf specialists. He also jumped from 10th to fourth on the Breeders’ Cup rankings that grade potential Classic entrants.

 

(I will add my usual if tired opinion of these polls, in which I turned down invitations to take part. Since they do not reflect money being wagered, and because they are sometimes watered down by agenda-driven voters, I usually look askance at them.)

 

What the polls and the futures markets have in common is that most human flaw of being blinded by what horses have done for us lately. The latter-day term for it is recency bias. The gambling term for it is underlay.

 

We saw this phenomenon after Higher Power won this month’s Grade 1 Pacific Classic at Del Mar. He came from nowhere to show up as a 16-1 shot in the Breeders’ Cup Classic futures. Contrast that with his John Sadler-trained stable mate – Grade 1 Santa Anita Handicap winner Gift Box at 25-1. Higher Power would certainly be the underlay, more so than Gift Box, which makes the backing of the two horses curious.

 

“A little bit,” said Kosta Hronis, who owns Gift Box and Higher Power. “They’ve both gone the mile-and-a-quarter, and they’ve both won. Higher Power ran really well. He was really impressive on that day on that track. There was a nice group of horses there. I’m not sure how much respect Gift Box has got for his early wins. If he comes back into form, we’re going to see him probably bring that number down.”

 

The shiny-object nature of polling and futures betting will be on display again next month if Maximum Security wins the $1 million Pennsylvania Derby. Right now he is 9-1 off shore and 10-1 in Europe. A third win this year in a Grade 1 would vault him to the front of the 3-year-old class and, who knows, maybe to the top of Breeders’ Cup betting.

 

The dust is unlikely to settle on the futures before the end of September. That is when the Jockey Club Gold Cup will be run at Santa Anita and the Awesome Again Stakes at Santa Anita. And those winners are likely to be short-priced choices in the Breeders’ Cup futures. In other words, underlays.

 

As usual, the moral to the futures story is that it makes little sense to bet the chalk right now in the Breeders’ Cup, especially since there may be just as much or more value come post time with pari-mutuels. About the only value among the shortest-priced horses now is using them to gauge the opinion of sharp bettors and the not-so-sharp media.

 

Come to think of it, when I post the Breeders’ Cup futures early Saturday on my Twitter feed @ronflatter, I should add the disclaimer “for amusement purposes only.”

 

Racing news and opinions

 

Trainer Todd Pletcher is having a subpar summer, but he cannot be ignored in Saratoga’s final Grade 1 race of the year. He has three of the nine horses entered in the $750,000 Woodward Stakes over 1⅛ miles Saturday at 6 p.m. EDT. Ridden by John Velázquez, Vino Rosso (7-2) comes back from a third-place finish to McKinzie early this month in the Grade 1 Whitney, and the 4-year-old colt by Curlin will race without blinkers for the first time in more than two years. Winless in five races against open company, 4-year-old gelding Bal Harbour (15-1) comes off a narrow loss to War Story in the Grade 3 Monmouth Cup and will try to come from behind to win. Wooderson (12-1), a 4-year-old colt by Smart Strike, won two allowance races during the spring but got stuck Saturday with the outside gate. Second in the Whitney, last year’s Woodward winner and morning-line favorite Yoshida (5-2) brings closing speed in his bid to repeat for trainer Bill Mott. Preservationist (7-2) was nervous before finishing fourth for Jimmy Jerkens in the Whitney, and he figures to bring early speed to chase likely pacesetter Mr. Buff (8-1). I always lean hard to the blinkers-off angle, especially after Pletcher successfully used the tactic in 2013 to win the Belmont Stakes with Palace Malice. So I will key Vino Rosso in my Woodward bets with Yoshida, Preservationist and Bal Harbour underneath.

 

While there are plenty of off-shore and overseas betting options for the Breeders’ Cup, we watch and wait to see if they will materialize domestically. There has been no comment from William Hill about if and when it will post futures as it has in recent years. Johnny Avello of DraftKings Sportsbook said he has nothing planned at this point, but it is no secret that he would be ready to go if he were to get a green light from a state regulator. The off-shore sites that have been offering Breeders’ Cup futures this summer include Bet Online, Bovada and US Racing.

 

Ominous news came out of Louisville this week by way of Illinois. Churchill Downs Incorporated announced that it would “not” apply for a license to allow sports betting at Arlington Park. On the face of it it looked like Churchill was giving up on a piece of prime real estate. Add the fact that rival Hawthorne Park already has a partnership with PointsBet, the Australian sports-betting company (and VSiN sponsor) that has established a beachhead in New Jersey. Another fact: The Rivers casino near O’Hare International Airport and primarily owned by Churchill Downs is also moving toward booking sports. Remember, Churchill Downs pushed the Illinois state legislature hard to get alternate gaming sources at Arlington Park. So why would it do a 180 and leave Arlington Park twisting in the wind? For one, it is already paying $10 million for the license at the Rivers, and it does not want to pay another $12 million to get the same thing at Arlington Park. That actually makes sense, but it also begs the question: If Churchill Downs did not want to take out more than one sports-gambling license in Chicagoland, why did it choose to do so at a casino where space is already at a premium rather than at the very roomy Arlington Park? No matter how that answer is spun, it is frightening for the future of horse racing in Illinois.

 

It has become a disadvantage to be in post 14 for the Kentucky Derby, because horses outside in the auxiliary gate have broken inward and created a bottleneck. That crucible might soon become a thing of the past. Horse Racing Nation got confirmation from Churchill Downs that track bosses were at the Ebor Festival last week at York, England, to kick the imaginary tires on a custom-made, 20-horse gate. This does not mean it will be ready to go in 2020, but at least it is being considered. For years a bigger gate has been on the wish list of serious Derby watchers and more than a few horsemen. One of the obstacles has been how to get the longer gate on and off the track near the Central Avenue perimeter of the property. Considering Churchill Downs’s ongoing expansion of its real-estate footprint, that might not be a deal breaker for long.

 

Ron Flatter’s weekly racing column is posted every Friday morning at VSiN.com. It appears more frequently during coverage of big races. You may also hear the Ron Flatter Racing Pod posted Friday mornings at VSiN.com/podcasts. New York Racing Association television analyst Maggie Wolfendale Morley handicaps Saturday’s Grade 1 Woodward Stakes at Saratoga. Horse owner Kosta Hronis talks about Catalina Cruiser, Gift Box, Higher Power and the 2-year-olds he has racing at Del Mar. There is also Twitter feedback and a commentary about the decision not to bring sports gambling to Arlington Park. The RFRP is also available via Apple, Google and Stitcher and at VSiN.com/podcasts.

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