by Jeremy Plonk
May 16, 2018
No major surprises rocked Old Hilltop today. It continued to rain and the eight expected entrants for Preakness 143 all made their way to the entry box. When the pills were pulled, Kentucky Derby winner Justify drew the 7-hole and was installed the 1-2 favorite by track oddsmaker Keith Feustle. It’s the same draw Justify had in the Derby, though the significance there was more than here. Today, there really wasn’t a deal-breaking kind of spot for him to land.
The draw did cause some interesting moments as Quip, who shares some ownership with Justify as well as a front-running style, wound up on the rail. He will be sent for speed by Florent Geroux most likely and the band of other pace and pressers will flank him past the wire the first time. Sporting Chance in post 3 isn’t good news for many in there as his tendency to bear out in races could rear its head at any time and you’d feel more comfortable finding your way inside of him sooner than later.
Good Magic in post 5 is kind of stuck between fast horses inside of him and the key players outside of him. That could get a bit pinch-worthy and tight in there, but he seems so tactical and Eclipse Award-winning jockey Jose Ortiz is at the top of his profession. It’s not a terrible draw, but Good Magic probably would have been better further outside. And if Sporting Chance does anything odd to his inside, Good Magic might be among the first to be affected. But that’s a lot of speculation.
With Quip, Sporting Chance and Diamond King all inside of Justify, the tempo of the Preakness may have picked up a length or two based on this draw. The beneficiary to any quicker pace and subsequent chase almost has to be Lone Sailor, who will save ground from post 2 and spot these 15 lengths down the backstretch.
For the eighth time in the 10-year history of Pimlico’s ever-growing InfieldFest at Preakness, my team from Horse Player NOW was assigned the education role to the masses. This year was the wettest we’ve seen, but may also have been among the most rewarding. Please suspend your perceptions of millennials, runnings of the urinals from 15 years ago and the clichés shown to you on television and learn directly from someone who has literally been in those trenches … a lot. I’m 46 – old enough to know better, but not too far away to have forgotten what it’s like. And, I’m also a 25-year veteran of the horse racing industry, which gives me the unique position of understanding the next customer while also understanding the industry. One without the other fails to make a proper handshake. Listen to someone who understands only one side of that equation and you get nothing but clichés. Those understanding the youth and not the industry will tell you inaccurate perceptions about the industry’s wrongs. Those who have been engrained in the industry too long, and have lost touch with the youth, will tell you how those kids should get off of their lawn. Friday we taught in The Stronach Group Chalet to a corporate, very high-end audience; then on Saturday moved to our digs to the general public in the Xpressbet Betting 101 Lounge (We call it a lounge now, not a tent … sometimes progress comes in the form of a good marketing name. But in all seriousness, I prefer now calling it betting and not wagering. Don’t be embarrassed who you are.). It was a stark difference in status and demeanor between the two crowds. But once conversation struck, you could have closed your eyes and traded just the text with barely a 50/50 chance to correctly identify which audience we were engaging at the time. You see, potential bettors and socializers may come in different wrappers, but they identify the same. It takes only a few seconds for a seasoned player development strategist to know whether a new engagement is the type who could possibly be back here next Saturday when the lights aren’t so bright. I found several in both environments, the Chalet and infield, but as expected, the vast majority weren’t future horseplayers. We’re a niche, not the masses. Not everyone at the rave will play chess, nor will you find an opera house full of potential WWE fans. Around mid-day Saturday, the local NBC affiliate visited our area and gave a great promotion to the cause of what we were doing. And in casual conversation waiting for our live hit, the reporter admitted that they staged their mud shots, asking kids to go diving into it so they could get it just right. That’s TV, folks. They don’t capture what’s happening. They conceive what they think is happening and then go out and either find that perception or have it created to fill the perception. Same goes for local and national. Did the younger crowd drink a lot and have a big time at Preakness? You bet. We saw our share of staggering sorts and joked at post time that it was time to wake up a few of your face-down friends. But it absolutely was not an ill-behaved crowd. Here’s what I know DID happen on Saturday: A group of five friends in their 60s joined us in Wagering 101 for their sixth visit, pretty impressive for our eight live events at Old Hilltop. They talked about our current and former staffs, and old and new locations. They knew the story, and continued to praise our efforts to reach the next generation. At another table of six was a 73-year-old handicapping veteran mixed among five 20-somethings. They shared laughs and looks at their programs; watched each others’ seats while the others went for bets; and looked out for one another. When the elder gentleman came up to our main stage area to chat and another person in the packed lounge came and took his chair to another table, it was one of the fellow 20-somethings who followed the chair stealer back to the table, reasoned with him and returned it to the 73-year-old stranger. I know this because I saw it. And I know the elder gent. He’s my father. I saw young kids looking out for older folks. And I saw them interested to share stories about horse racing throughout the day, while each was betting. And another elder horseplayer was high on the minds of these 20-somethings at the 2018 Preakness. I counted at least 8 individual requests from newbies to explain the Kentucky Derby bet that netted the Texas school teacher $1.2 million on just an $18 play. We didn’t tell them about that pick five before Baltimore; they came to Pimlico informed of it on social media and online news sources that flooded the post-Derby coverage. We helped them construct their own versions of the bet, but responsibly informed them that there was next-to-no chance of such a return based on the number of starters and likely favorites in Saturday’s sequence. Still, they came with a thirst to learn and understand; and some wound up making – and hitting – their first pick five plays … even if the return was in the $80 range and not $1.2 million. Some of these attendees were happy to bet Justify knowing full well that $2 wagered would net at most $3 back. Others, not as impressed with paltry returns, were educated on the reason exotic wagers were created and how to capitalize and turn them in your favor as a gambler. Fortunately, we were on Bravazo and Lone Sailor as suggested exacta plays, again cautioning that getting $7 back with Good Magic second is not sound gambling. Most understood, assumed the slightly additional risk (but for the same investment) and put the pricier horses second. They got back $27 for $2 in the exacta, but let me tell you that hardly any of the folks my team instructed all day were playing $2 exactas in the Preakness. Slews of my individual ‘students’ were playing $25 and $50 versions, coming to the Preakness with $100-$200 to spend and not interested in betting 14 races. I told them only 2-3 races on the card were strong betting chances, and focusing your bankroll like this as a newbie will help you understand the game better as a bettor. Those playing $25 and $50 exactas left with about $300-$600 profits and a celebration of the big score and seeing history. The other way we saw how much they were betting was to tie in our free giveaways to those showing us their tickets. If you wanted a free Xpressbet hat or totebag, you had to show us a ticket for the most recent race, or an upcoming race. The amounts on those tickets almost never were $2. While per capita may measure a low number on festival days because such a large percentage of guests bet nothing, absolutely trust me when I tell you that those betting are not spending $40 for the day. To treat a newbie with an interest in the gambling process as a nickel-dimer is flat wrong. They will spend if they have an interest. It’s those not interested upon whom we need not waste our resources. And as an educator, I vow never to leave the crowd without a history lesson. But we don’t bore them throughout the day with mass lectures. Instead, after Maryland My Maryland plays and the field is introduced, we use that last 6-8 minutes of anticipation to explain how great the game and its people are to an attentive audience that’s the largest of the day. The reaction they gave hearing that Mike Smith was 52 years old and still the top big-money rider of his generation was visibly impressive. Then, D. Wayne Lukas at a mere 83 and heading to the track at 4 a.m. each day got eyebrow raises from those young and old. They were informed that they were on the brink of history that has stood more than a century as Bob Baffert and Lukas were a win away from matching R.W. Walden’s all-time Preakness record. Kids and casuals may not understand Beyers and beaten lengths so much, but they do understand the humanizing of our stars in terms they can relate, and they love to be a part of something historic. Saturday at Pimlico, Justify treated them to plenty of history and winning tickets. It was a win-win situation, and we were proud to be there once again.
Not a whole lot in life happens in two weeks, and what little I can think of would not be considered positive. Even the Barenaked Ladies sang about “One Week,” not two. Instead, you give or get two weeks’ notice when a job doesn’t work out and you’re ready for something new. Further, there are two weeks between the NFL’s conference championship games and the Super Bowl, what seems to be an eternity to wait each year in late January. And, then there’s the Kentucky Derby-Preakness interval. Two short weeks. A mere 14 days. Annually, it’s the second-most talked about element to the Triple Crown’s middle jewel. “Can the Derby winner do it again?” always reserves the No. 1 spot for Baltimore banter. Two weeks sure gets a lot of chatter in the days between the first and third Saturday in May. The quick turn-around in modern Thoroughbred parlance can be the difference between regality and regression. No doubt this is a much different era than when a would-be Preakness contender would actually get a tune-up at Havre de Grace just to keep sharp after the Kentucky Derby. But is the fear warranted? I put the outstanding handicapping software Betmix to work to see if the numbers offered any support for the two-week turnaround anxiety bandied about by horsemen and horseplayers alike. The results were statistically pretty conclusive and consistent as I examined all races since the beginning of 2012, a good modern sample size in training amidst the era of limited starts, out of competition recovery medications and the like. All starters at all class levels: 13.5% win rate for horses coming back with more than 2 weeks’ rest; 11.6% win rate for horses coming back on 2 weeks’ rest or less. All starters in stakes races: 12.0% win rate for horses coming back with more than 2 weeks’ rest; 9.1% win rate for horses coming back on 2 weeks’ rest or less. All starters in graded stakes races: 12.0% win rate for horses coming back with more than 2 weeks’ rest; 8.7% win rate for horses coming back on 2 weeks’ rest or less. All starters in Grade 1 stakes races: 11.4% win rate for horses coming back with more than 2 weeks’ rest; 7.8% win rate for horses coming back on 2 weeks’ rest or less. As you can see based on class, horses with more than 2 weeks’ rest out-perform those on short rest by a pretty significant margin from about 2 to 3.5% at each level. The tougher the races become, the larger the spread becomes between successful horses with more than 2 weeks’ rest vs. those on short rest. Given that turn-around time, recovery and potential rest would seemingly be important points to the stamina issue, I also ran the Betmix data to factor in the distance of races. Sprints and routes are the most common division in distance in Thoroughbred racing, so we broke down the numbers based on races less than 1 mile (sprints) and races at 1 mile or longer (routes). All starters in races less than 1-mile: 13.0% win rate for horses coming back with more than 2 weeks’ rest; 11.3% win rate for horses coming back on 2 weeks’ rest or less. All starters in races 1-mile or longer: 12.6% win rate for horses coming back with more than 2 weeks’ rest; 11.4% win rate for horses coming back on 2 weeks’ rest or less. Again, horses with more than 2 weeks between starts performed at a higher percentage than those on quick turn-arounds whether sprinting or routing. That’s consistent with what we saw over all class levels as well as the elite class levels. The notable point here is that the win percentages for each type of layoff horse was nearly identical whether sprinting or routing, so perhaps it makes the point not so much about fitness in terms of endurance, but rather the argument that you’re either ready to run or you’re not, regardless of the distance assignment. Finally, I looked at the apples-to-apples discussion in Preakness terms of the 3-year-old racehorse. Is the sophomore more or less capable than an older horse of handling the 2-week interval? All starters in races restricted to just 3-year-olds: 13.1% win rate for horses coming back with more than 2 weeks’ rest; 10.9% win rate for horses coming back on 2 weeks’ rest or less. Again, those with the longer rest interval outperformed the quick turn-arounds even in the straight sophomore ranks. The margin between the two is 2.2%, slightly better on the quick return than the overall population (2.9% spread) and more productive than in Grade 1 stakes overall at all ages (3.6%). The numbers do indeed bear out some of the fear. It’s hard to find any situation where it’s best to be returning on the quick rest, except the Preakness Stakes itself. Here, 14 of the last 16 winners at Old Hilltop were horses coming off 2-week breaks (13 from the Derby, along with Rachel Alexandra’s 15-day hiatus after the Oaks). From Bernardini (2006) until Cloud Computing last year, 10 straight Preakness winners made their hay on the short rest.