Del Mar, California
This may seem like the rant of a player who tore up too many tickets betting Saratoga and here at Del Mar, but the sooner this summer is forgotten the better.
I had my long-shot wins at both tracks, and I bought a few nice dinners as a result. Still, I found myself grumbling about some negatives these past couple months even as experts I talked to were accentuating the positives.
“The field sizes here were great,” said Jon Lindo, who handicapped Del Mar for Las Vegas-based Boyd Gaming and for the San Diego Union-Tribune. “The main track was slow, but it was consistent. I think that makes for a really, really good racing season.”
At least the Del Mar condition book held up. That was far from reality at Saratoga, where 50 races were taken off the turf because of a summer full of rain that would get any horseplayer grumbling.
“They lost me early in the meet with all the scratches and all the weather,” Lindo said. “There’s nothing they can do about Mother Nature.”
That was just the start of the weather trouble there. Handicappers and horsemen were hard-pressed to keep up with everything from the conditions of Saratoga’s racing surfaces to the compressed workout schedules brought on by the wet weather.
“It forced the entire horse community here at Saratoga to funnel in for serious workouts just two to three days a week,” said Bruno De Julio, who owns and operates the database Bruno With the Works. “A number of days we had 300 works on the tab. It was one of the toughest meets I’ve ever worked at.”
With the exception of Del Mar’s biggest races like the Pacific Classic, which had only seven starters, fields were fuller than they are the rest of the year, making for better prices. It was just a matter of hitting them. It was also a challenge to play the idiosyncrasies like a dead rail that has become all too familiar on the main track here.
“Probably a little more biased days than I would have expected,” said Bob Ike, a longtime handicapper here who is now involved with HorseBills.com. “That’s something you definitely needed to follow and take trip notes and bias notes and try and catch them the next time around.”
If that wasn’t enough, the turf track played like the Bizarro episode of “Seinfeld,” leading bettors to chase their own tails.
“Usually when the rails are down at zero it’s a big wide course and closers have a pretty good chance to win,” Lindo said. “When we started this meet it was the exact opposite. Speed really carried the first couple weeks when the rails were down. In years past when the rails were out 30 feet with less room to maneuver, horses at the front end have done pretty well. This year when they put the rails out, everything was coming from behind. That kind of threw us for a loop, too.”
Wynn Las Vegas race and sportsbook director Johnny Avello made trips to both tracks and said he had a successful visit to Saratoga during Travers week.
“I caught a bias when I was up there that week,” Avello said. “All you had to do was find out who the horse was that was going to get to the lead. Once the horse got to the lead you were golden.”
For me, though, the absence of some big stars stained both meets. Triple Crown winner Justify was retired as soon as trainer Bob Baffert got here from Santa Anita. West Coast never got out of his barn in the afternoon. The same went for Collected and McKinzie. Back east 2017 Kentucky Derby winner Always Dreaming never got onto the track for Todd Pletcher; he was retired Thursday to stand as a stallion at WinStar Farm. Audible – another Pletcher standout – is still on the shelf with no sign of a comeback. And a fever forced Bill Mott to take Hofburg out of the Travers.
“I was hoping to see West Coast,” Lindo said. “That’s a disappointment. But in general I was impressed with the quality of the 2-year-olds we saw here.”
If there was a categorical highlight this summer, it certainly was the young runners. Jerry Hollendorfer’s colt Instagrand stamped himself the favorite for this fall’s Breeders’ Cup Juvenile, winning the Grade 2 Best Pal here by 10¼ lengths to run his record to 2-for-2.
Baffert won 14 races at Del Mar, 11 of them with maiden 2-year-olds. One of them was Game Winner, a colt that came back Monday to win the Grade 1 Del Mar Futurity over another impressive Baffert 2-year-old – Roadster.
“Game Winner is just a big, good-looking horse,” Baffert said. “He’s going to get better with age. They all do. We’ve had a lot of years that we’ve broken some maidens. Now they start to carry out and go to the next level.”
If there were formulas to put money in the bank, they included bets on Baffert babies at Del Mar and Chad Brown’s at Saratoga.
“With 2-year-olds this was Chad Brown’s meet,” De Julio said. “This was a departure from the norm with Chad dominating with young horses.”
Where Brown finished with a Saratoga record 46 wins, Pletcher was an unusually distant second with 19 and only a 15 percent strike rate. Any bettor leaning early on Pletcher to get his usual share at Saratoga did not get back to the window very often.
But before anyone doubles down on Brown’s or any other trainer’s 2-year-olds coming out of Saratoga, De Julio pointed out that their success is in a bubble, especially when the Kentucky Derby is the measuring stick.
“Look up the last time that a Derby winner was a colt that broke his maiden on the main track at Saratoga,” De Julio said. “You have to go back to Decidedly. He broke his maiden here in 1961 before he won the Derby in ’62. So is Saratoga the place to be to break your maiden if you want to win the Kentucky Derby? No.”
“The west-coast 2-year-olds have been dominating as of late,” Avello said. “Everything Baffert touches turns to gold. I may put a prop up on whether Baffert will win the Derby, yes or no. I may do that when I release my Derby futures.”
That should be within the next couple weeks at the Wynn, providing another chance to answer the question what did we learn this summer? Maybe it was to pay close attention, because we are not alone in trying to find a price.
“I think with social media, every time a horse wins off by themselves, people start hyping these things and people get word of these horses sooner,” Lindo said. “And they want to be the first to cash a bet on these horses.”
“There’s always that hope with 2-year-olds,” Ike said. “And hope springs eternal.”
Horse racing notes and opinions
Instagrand (7-2) closed as the favorite in last weekend’s Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Future Wager conducted by the championships themselves through Churchill Downs. Roadster (6-1) was the only other individual horse to be in single digits. “All other” 2-year-olds than the 23 choices in the betting were the 8-1 third choice. It should be noted that betting closed Sunday evening – before Roadster’s loss to Game Winner (22-1) in Monday’s Del Mar Futurity. That begs a question. With an influential Grade 1 race on the long, holiday-weekend schedule, why weren’t bets accepted all the way through Monday for this one-time wager? If nothing else, anyone who bet on Game Winner has to be happy about what may have been an oversight.
Enable (8-13), last year’s Prix de l’Arc de Triomphe winner and European champion, is the odds-on favorite to win Saturday’s 1½-mile Group 3 September Stakes over the Polytrack at Kempton Park, England. Frankie Dettori will get the ride for trainer John Gosden, who has kept the 4-year-old filly sidelined for nearly a year because of an unspecified “training setback.” Sir Michael Stoute’s 4-year-old colt Crystal Ocean (7-4), runner-up to Poet’s Word in this summer’s King George, is also in the five-horse field. He will concede eight pounds to Enable, whose stable mate Weekender (14-1) will be her rabbit. If Enable does not win, don’t expect to see her at ParisLongchamp to defend her Arc victory. Post time for the September Stakes is 9:05 a.m. EDT.
Ron Flatter’s racing column is posted every Friday morning at VSiN.com. You may also hear the Ron Flatter Racing Pod, also posted Friday mornings at VSiN.com/podcasts. Hall of Fame trainer Jerry Hollendorfer talks about Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Future Wager favorite Roadster, and Eclipse Award-winning writer-handicapper John Scheinman offers stories for horseplayers both new and seasoned. The RFRP is also available at leading providers such as Apple Podcasts, Google Play Podcasts and Stitcher.