By Jeremy Plonk
The smoke had barely cleared from Saturday’s Risen Star at Fair Grounds, El Camino Real Derby at Golden Gate Fields and Miracle Wood at Laurel Park before a previously unknown sophomore inhaled all the headlines. Justify, yet another in the Cadillac showroom of trainer Bob Baffert, debuted a monstrous 7-furlong winner Sunday in Santa Anita’s second race. And with that, we have our first genuinely steamed horse of the 2018 Triple Crown trail. Sure, others caught some eyes. But Justify went from zero to hero as fast as a horse can go … not literally on the track, albeit he was super-quick there (7 furlongs in a fleet 1:21.86), but even more so in the court of public opinion. So here we are, 24 hours later, wondering if there’s any way Justify can be our Derby winner on the first Saturday in May. The Feb. 18 debut sat just 76 days on the calendar in front of this year’s kickoff to the Triple Crown. That’s a day shy of 11 weeks to go from unstarted to unforgettable. If Justify gets only one more prep race and earns his way into the Derby, he’d be just the fifth horse since 1937 to run for the roses with only two career starts on his resume. The last to do so was also the most successful attempt when Godolphin’s China Visit ran sixth in 2000. Disposal was 18th in 1992, while a pair of 1940s bids netted 9th and 15th-place results. Who knows if the answers lie in the Kentucky Derby Media Guide pages or not? Baffert still has time to get two more races into Justify if everything goes without a hitch. After all, he could go down the Oaklawn path and be on the exact same pattern as those horses exiting Monday’s Southwest Stakes en route to the Rebel and Arkansas Derby. The 3-race crew has had some limited success over the last century-plus with a 15: 2-0-1 mark. Regret bested the boys in 1915 in her third start and it took until Big Brown in 2008 to follow up with a second score. Curlin pulled off the show finish in 2007 before going on to win the Preakness. Summer Bird was sixth in 2009 before adding the Belmont. That noted, you can see Triple Crown race winners in 2007, 2008 and 2009 who ran in the Derby with only three lifetime starts. Baffert has never run a two or three-start horse in the Derby. Bodemeister had four going into the 2012 series and wound up running one of the most impressive Kentucky Derby and Preakness series of runner-ups ever seen. But he never started after Old Hilltop. Bodemeister may be a fair comparable to Justify, given the similar connections and late start to his career. He didn’t debut until Jan. 16, didn’t break his maiden until Feb. 11 and then ran in the San Felipe in March and Arkansas Derby in April. Even so, Justify is by contrast a full race and one week behind even Bodemeister’s path. Curlin perhaps makes an even closer comparison in terms of the rapid ascension required. He debuted Feb. 3, 2007 on Super Bowl Sunday, only 15 days earlier than Justify. He found the Rebel and Arkansas Derby path to his liking, winning both, and made his way to Louisville as a legitimate leading contender in a crop that included Street Sense, Hard Spun and eventually the Oaks-winning filly Rags to Riches. Despite 2007 being one of the great crops of the last 30 years, Curlin earned a classic in the Preakness and was on the board in the Derby and Belmont before becoming a 2-time Horse of the Year. His rapid rise didn’t stunt his career as it did Bodemeister. To add another layer of possibility, consider that Curlin even had a barn change from Helen Pitts to Steve Asmussen after his debut win, acclimating to a new program, home base and more. Rest assured, Justify won’t be leaping to any new barns from the game’s preeminent skipper of sophomores. There’s the whole Apollo curse dating back to 1882 since an unstarted 2-year-old won the Kentucky Derby. We get that. Since 1937, that group is 0-59 in the big dance. Bodemeister and Curlin hit the board with second and third-place finishes in the last decade. Baffert is 0-2 vs. Apollo behind Bodemeister and longshot Santa Anita Derby winner Midnight Interlude (16th in 2011). The biggest hurdle for Justify, as it is for all 3-year-olds, is the calendar. You’re only three once on Derby Day. Father Time waits for no one. Any missteps between now and May 5 will be magnified greatly because Justify has nothing else upon which to fall back. He must first come out of this 7-furlong sizzler raring to go; train smartly toward the next step and succeed there; and then repeat this process not once, but twice more going into a final prep and into the Kentucky Derby. All in all, it’s an awful lot to ask of Justify. But this is an awful exciting prospect. Time will tell. It always has the last word on the Kentucky Derby.
By Al Cimaglia
Sunday's Pompano Park feature rolls in Race 3, an Open 1 Pace with an $11,000 purse. The 0.50 Pick 4 sequence begins in Race 6, it has a $20,000 guaranteed pool and will be my focus. Last night at Hawthorne, the Jackpot Hi-5 pool totaled $543,015 and the (5-6-3-1-7) combination paid $634.20. Below are the comments that were written for each horse in the order they finished. My keys were the #6 and #1. Hopefully someone hit the all button for the fifth slot and included the #7. 5-Fox Valley Cupid (7/2)-Program chalk hasn't been able to get a local win. Form is spotty, but this is a soft group. 6-Uptown Sleaze (9/2)-Excuse in last, now Warren steers which is a plus. Fits and looks like a major player. 3-Sunset Dreamer (9/2)-Would need best effort for a 3-5 finish, could happen with a late charge. 1-Ricky Bobbie (4-1)-Widger takes a seat, drops to the lowest level of the meet and could be sitting on a big try. 7-Medicine Hat (15-1)-Steps up after beating easier, looks to be an outsider tonight. Comments and selections below are based on a fast track. Race 6 2-Major Marcus-Program chalk got on the engine and made it look easy, will respect chances for an encore. 7-Major Starlight-Thinking #6 flies off the gate and pace could be brisk, should be rolling late. Race 7 3-I Am Golden-Inside, 8-1 in ML, comes out of a race with an even effort but pace was brisk, will take a swing. 6-Officernagentleman-Sharp win from 7 hole and program favorite deserves respect. 7-Hurricane Howard-Had the 8 hole and came 2nd to #6, should be in the hunt again. Race 8 2-Lyons Johnny-Claimed for $30k, steps up and has won last two. Starts inside and will respect but will try to beat. 4-Team Captain-Steps down and has won at this level before, could be sitting on a big try. 6-The Onlyest One-Steps up but is sharp and is Geo. Naps choice, likes to win. Race 9 2-River Spot-Raced big from a tough post and now drops, in the mix at a square price. 3-Rock N Row-Faces better and will need a trip, but I'll bite from this post with Hennessey at 6-1 in the ML. 4-Kotare Yael N-Gets post relief and can leave, is camera shy but this could be the spot for a picture. 0.50 Pick 4 2,7/3,6,7/2,4,6/2,3,4 Total Bet=$27 Check me out on Twitter, @AlCimaglia.
By Al Cimaglia
It's a big night of racing at Hawthorne, with co-features for pacers rolling in Race 5 and Race 7. The first headliner is the Doc Walker Final for Illinois bred 3-year-old fillies with a $25,000 purse. The Terry Hunt Final for 3-year-old colts and geldings is the co-headliner and it also has a $25,000 purse. The 0.50 Late Pick 4 sequence with a $15,000 guaranteed pool begins in Race 6. The Jackpot Hi-5 will be contested in Race 9 and there is a $204,195 carryover going into tonight's mandatory payout. Drivers Brandon Bates, Kyle Wilfong and Ryan Anderson led all pilots with two trips to the winner's circle. Anderson recorded lifetime wins 3,000 and 3,001. Trainer Tim Hall was the top conditioner with three pictures. The winners of the Own a Horse Sweepstakes will be announced tonight, and they will receive two shares of an Illinois bred 2-year-old trotting filly. The event is sponsored by Hawthorne in conjunction with TheStable.ca. Comments below for the Jackpot Hi-5 are based on a fast track. Race 9-Jackpot Hi-5 Mandatory Payout 1 - Ricky Bobbie (4-1) - Widger takes a seat, drops to the lowest level of the meet and could be sitting on a big try. 2 - Cole Heat (12-1) - Doesn't like to pass horses in the lane. Steps up, would need some luck to hit bottom of ticket. 3 - Sunset Dreamer (9/2) - Would need best effort for a 3-5 finish, could happen with a late charge. 4 - Luke's Rocketman (6-1) - Makes 4th start of meet, gets a positive driver change but has been off since 1-26. 5 - Fox Valley Cupid (7/2) - Program chalk hasn't been able to get a local win. Form is spotty, but this is a soft group. 6 - Uptown Sleaze (9/2) - Excuse in last, now Warren steers which is a plus. Fits and looks like a major player. 7 - Medicine Hat (15-1) - Steps up after beating easier, looks to be an outsider tonight. 8 - Delight Fashion (15-1) - If pace is quick could hit the bottom of the Hi-5 but is trip dependent. 9 - Total Sin (12-1) - Team Leonard trainee is 0-38 but it's the 2nd start since switching barns, will use on the ticket. My Hi-5 ticket will be built around #6-Uptown Sleaze and #1-Ricky Bobbie. Check me out on Twitter, @AlCimaglia
By Jerry Shottenkirk
Racing’s spotlight Saturday is on the historic Fair Grounds, and Instilled Regard is favored to take another step forward on the Derby trail as he goes favored in the G2 $400,000 Risen Star Stakes. There really is not good reason to not use the Jerry Hollendorfer-trained son of Arch in the Pick Three. The $1,050,000 purchase as a 2-year-old is rapidly putting himself among the elite sophomores. Oxo Equine LLC’s runner was workmanlike in his 3 3-4-length win in the G3 Lecomte Stakes in his 1st start as a 3-year-old and 1st appearance at the Fair Grounds. Hollendorfer appears to have chosen the proper route for Instilled Regard. Whether he sticks it out in New Orleans probably depends on how he finishes in the Risen Star. There is little doubt Instilled Regard has improved as he’s stretched out and he proved his ability to relax from just off the pace in his last two. Principe Guilherme should not be dismissed. He was 3 3-4 lengths behind Instilled Regard in the Lecomte. As a Steve Asmussen-trained son of Tapit, Principe Guilherme is getting better and appears to be one to approve with distance. The Risen Star is 1 1-16th miles – just like slightly longer that his last two races and if he doesn’t even the score today, he’ll have other chances if all goes well. Principe Guilherme was 6-to-5 in the Lecomte and will probably be the second choice today. Both Instilled Regard and Principe Guilherme are firmly on this suggested ticket. The Risen Star is the third leg of the Pick 3 that includes the 7th and 8th races. The 7th is the Grade 2 $200,000 Rachel Alexandra and the middle of the Pick Three sandwich is the Grade 3 $150,000 Fair Grounds Handicap. Trainer Brad Cox has the 8-to-5 Rachel Alexandra Stakes favorite in Monomoy Girl. She was 3-for-3 and then lost by a neck to Road to Victory in the Grade 2 Golden Rod at Churchill Downs. Cox’s stable is good anywhere and it’s particularly sharp at the Fair Grounds. He’s won 31 of 101 (31 percent) and has this daughter of Tapizar working in very good fashion. She’s been on the track steadily since the first week of 2018 and has a steady and impressive string of practice runs. She’ll definitely be tough in the Rachel Alexandra, but if there’s a time to try to beat her, start No. 1 of the year might be it. She’s the most likely winner but trainer Bret Calhoun has a capable pair of runners in Classy Act and Patrona Margarita, and Mark Casse has a strong filly in Heavenly Love, who disappointed last time but will improve if she’s like anything else lately in the Casse. The favorite is used here, but this is the spread race in hopes of a decent shot that will give this exotic play a boost. The Mike Maker-trained Galton looks good in the Fair Grounds Handicap. He comes off a sharp 2nd to Tower of Texas in the Colonel Bradley and closed well on soft turf. He’s in good form and fits well in this spot. Cox trainee Mr. Misunderstood goes for his sixth straight win and 9th in his last 10. His latest score can in the Woodchopper here, and he’s definitely a must for the ticket. Also, Catcho En Die, makes his 2nd U.S. start after a runner-up finish at Gulfstream. Here’s the suggested Pick 3 ticket: Race 7: #3 Classy Act, #6 Heavenly Love, #7 Patrona Margarita, #8 Monomoy Girl. Race 8: #3 Galton, #6 Mr. Misunderstood, #12 Catcho En Die. Race 9: #5 Instilled Regard, #9 Principe Guilherme. 50-cent Pick 3: 3-7-6-8 with 3-6-12 with 5-9 ($12). Larger ticket: Same horses for $2 Pick 3 ($48 ticket).
Cal Expo starts the weekend with a 12-race card. The feature is the Jim Grundy Final-Trot which rolls in Race 5, and has an $8,400 purse. The headliner for betting purposes is the 0.20 Pick 4 with a $30,000 guaranteed pool and the sequence begins in Race 8. On Saturday night at Hawthorne there will be a mandatory payout for the Jackpot Hi-5. The pool is not frozen and the carryover going into tonight is $182,435.50. Comments and selections below for the Pick 4 are based on a fast track. Race 8 1-Dontdoubtthelakers-Not crazy about the 5/2 ML but at this level should be respected. 3-Jazzmanian Devils-Drops into a more comfortable spot and looks like a major threat. 6-Fly Away-Might be cycling back into top form and worth a swing with this crew. 7-Paydaze A Rockin-Steps up after a sharp win in a quick mile, may repeat at a square price. Race 9 1-Good Citations-Willing to toss last, looking for a better effort and best could take a picture. 5-Oh Yeah-Fresh horse for Plano qualified well and fits, has the speed if tight enough. 6-Lumberjack Willie-2nd start back for Plested and Wiseman sticks, should be in the hunt. 8-Who Dat Love-Slow pace and bad cover in last but was passing horses in the lane, will use at 6-1 in the ML. Race 10 3-Cenalta Artistry-Steps up after a sharp win for high % trainer, best to respect chances for an encore. 4-Rush And A Brush-Faced tough foes this meet, now drops and has a better chance to shine. 6-Kiss On The Lips-Hasn't won in 2 months but gets class and post relief, can beat this crew. Race 11 4-Hi Ho Houdini-2nd start off the bench for ML chalk and had an excuse in last, could be sitting on a big try. 7-Elvis Paceley-Interesting play at 15-1 in the ML, drops plus makes 3rd start for Johnson and Kennedy sticks. 0.20 Pick 4 1,3,6,7/1,5,6,8/3,4,6/4,7 Total Bet=$19.20 Check me out on Twitter, @AlCimaglia.
By Dustin Fabian
It’s another big weekend in horse racing, with the Fair Grounds, Laurel, Gulfstream, Santa Anita and Golden Gate all featuring enticing cards with great betting opportunities. At Xpressbet, we’re offering a 1 Million Point Split at Golden Gate in celebration of the El Camino Real Derby, Northern California’s premier Triple Crown prep race. Betting Saturday? You know I am! Here are six horses I’m looking forward to playing this weekend. Laurel Park (Race 9, 4:30PM ET) – General George Stakes (Gr III)#4 It’s the Journey (6/1) Local sprinter got on track very late in the Fire Plug Stakes last out when he was beaten just ½-length by Awesome Banner, who had the luxury of pressing a comfortable pace. They add an extra furlong from that engagement and I think there’s value to be had this go around, as the New York shippers, Great Stuff and Do Share, will require some pace luck. Gulfstream Park (Race 11, 5:16PM ET) – Old Hickory Stakes#8 Jay’s Way (3/1) I may be the last person to come around on Jay’s Way, but I’m finally here. Visually, I can’t get over how impressive his last two races were. He started a few really nice horses in the eye – we’re talking Mr. Jordan, J Boys Echo and You’re to Blame – and he gutted out wins both times. He never makes it look easy, but you can’t help but appreciate how he gets the job done. Selfishly, I’d love to see the eight-year-old, Page McKenney, get back to his winning ways, but Father Time may have finally caught up with him. Fair Grounds (Race 8, 5:35PM ET) – Fair Grounds Handicap (Gr III)#12 Catcho En Die (Arg) (8/1) He’s a Group 1 winner in Argentina and just ran 2nd down at Gulfstream off a 692-day layoff. I like that Bill Mott is throwing him right into a stakes race off that promising run and it’s safe to assume he’ll take a step forward, having knocked the rust off last time. He drew an unfortunate post, but is strong value at his ML price and is probably worth boxing in an Exacta with Mr. Misunderstood, Galton and Synchrony. Santa Anita (Race 7, 6:00PM ET) – Buena Vista Stakes (Gr II)#4 Madame Stripes (Arg) (3/1) My colleague, Jeremy Plonk, is very high on Madame Stripes here and I’ll let him explain why. Check out his Xpressbet Race of the Week column for more! Fair Grounds (Race 9, 6:03PM ET) – Risen Star Stakes (Gr II)#5 Instilled Regard (8/5) Jerry Hollendorfer-trainee has run huge in a pair of Kentucky Derby prep races, including a 3 ¾-length score in the Gr III Lecomte Stakes here last out and a near miss two back against McKinzie and Solomini in the Gr I Los Alamitos Futurity. Pletcher’s Noble Indy is the primary target, but that one is light on experience. Another threat, Asmussen’s Principe Guilherme, drew outside (again) and could do no better than a well-beaten second in the Lecomte. Instilled Regard isn’t a massive standout in this crop, but he’s spotted very nicely here. Golden Gate (Race 7, 6:45PM ET) – El Camino Real Derby#1 Paved (2/1) A filly against the boys? Sign me up! This isn’t a deep field of Northern California stalwarts and the way Paved ran last out in the lawn at Santa Anita – winning by 5 ½-lengths – she’s up for the challenge. It’s a big vote of confidence that Drayden Van Dyke makes the trip to San Francisco to ride her, and if she takes to the synthetic surface, she could be long gone.
By Jon White
Instilled Regard, who has the look of a rising 3-year-old star, has been installed as the 8-5 morning-line favorite in this Saturday’s Grade II Risen Star at New Orleans’ Fair Grounds. A $1,050,000 auction purchase, Instilled Regard returns to Louisiana from his Southern California base after winning the Grade III Lecomte at the Fair Grounds by a convincing 3 3/4 lengths as a 2-1 shot on Jan. 13. Javier Castellano, who rode the Kentucky-bred Arch colt for the first time in the Lecomte, will be back aboard Instilled Regard this Saturday for Hall of Fame trainer Jerry Hollendorfer. Principe Guilherme is the 7-2 second choice on the Risen Star morning line. The Kentucky-bred Tapit colt, conditioned by Hall of Famer Steve Asmussen, raced wide as the 6-5 favorite in the Lecomte and finished second for his first defeat in three career starts. Florent Geroux rode Principe Guilherme in the Lecomte. They will again team up this Saturday. I think Noble Indy is an intriguing Risen Star entrant. He is 5-1 on the morning line. Hall of Famer John Velazquez rides the Kentucky-bred Take Charge Indy colt for trainer Todd Pletcher. Noble Indy is two for two. He won a seven-furlong maiden special weight race by 8 3/4 lengths and recorded a 77 Beyer Speed Figure at Gulfstream Park on Dec. 3 in his debut. The colt then won a 1 1/16-mile allowance/optional claiming contest by three-quarters of a length on Jan. 11 at Gulfstream when assigned an 84 Beyer. The 84 Beyer Speed Figure recorded by Noble Indy does not come close to measuring up to Instilled Regard’s back-to-back 92 Beyers. Instilled Regard recorded a 92 Beyer Speed Figure in the Grade I Los Alamitos Futurity when he finished third and was moved up to second through the disqualification of Solomini. Instilled Regard then posted another 92 Beyer in the Lecomte. I have said it before and I’ll say it again that I think Thoro-Graph figures are superior to Beyer Speed Figures. In terms of a Thoro-Graph figure, the lower it is the better. No doubt Thoro-Graph disciples will be taking a very serious look at Noble Indy in the Risen Star. That’s because the 1 3/4 Thoro-Graph figure for his Jan. 11 victory is considerably better than any of Instilled Regard’s figs. Instilled Regard recorded Thoro-Graph figures of 4 1/4 in the Los Al Futurity and 4 in the Lecomte. I will not be surprised if Noble Indy -- with that excellent 1 3/4 Thoro-Graph figure to his credit -- attracts substantial support from Risen Star bettors. I think there is a good chance he will exit the starting gate at a shorter price -- perhaps even a much shorter price -- than his 5-1 morning line, especially with Velazquez and Pletcher adding to the colt’s appeal. It will be interesting to see what kind of performance we see Saturday from Noble Indy in his stakes debut. If he does not run better than his 84 Beyer Speed Figure, a victory is extremely doubtful. But if he runs anywhere close to his 1 3/4 Thoro-Graph figure, it will be no surprise to see him posing in the winner’s circle after the Risen Star. I have a very high opinion of Instilled Regard. I consider him to be a strong Kentucky Derby contender. But with that scary 1 3/4 Thoro-Graph figure in Noble Indy’s holster, Instilled Regard had better show up with his A game this Saturday. And if Instilled Regard fails to get the job done in the Risen Star, you can bet that I will be moving him down on my Kentucky Derby Top 10 list next week. Here is my Kentucky Derby Top 10 for this week: 1. McKinzie 2. Instilled Regard 3. Good Magic 4. Bolt d’Oro 5. Audible 6. Solomini 7. Avery Island 8. Sporting Chance 9. Free Drop Billy 10. Catholic Boy BOLT D’ORO AND GOOD MAGIC 8-1 IN FUTURE WAGER As expected, the “All Others” option was the 5-2 favorite when wagering in Pool Two of the 2018 Kentucky Derby Future Wager (KDFW) closed last Sunday. In terms of individual horses, Bolt d’Oro and Good Magic were the co-favorites at 8-1, with McKinzie next at 9-1. In Pool One of the KDFW that closed on Nov. 26, the “All Others” option was the 6-5 favorite. Bolt d’Oro was the 7-1 choice at that time among individual horses, with Good Magic next at 11-1 and McKinzie at 12-1. Here were the final odds for Pool Two of the KDFW: 5-2 All Others 8-1 Bolt d’Oro 8-1 Good Magic 9-1 McKinzie 9-1 Audible 16-1 Catholic Boy 18-1 Instilled Regard 19-1 Solomini 22-1 Mask 27-1 Avery Island 30-1 Principe Guilherme 31-1 Mourinho 33-1 Sporting Chance 36-1 Free Drop Billy 40-1 Strike Power 41-1 Untamed Domain 43-1 Copper Bullet 44-1 Mendelssohn 62-1 Enticed 63-1 Firenze Fire 67-1 Retirement Fund 71-1 Tiz Mischief 72-1 Combatant Montauk had been one of the individual horses, but betting on him was suspended before wagering on KDFW Pool Two began last Friday. The Kentucky-bred Medaglia d’Oro colt has not raced since he won a seven-furlong maiden special weight race at first asking by 11 1/4 lengths last Oct. 7 at Belmont Park. Montauk recorded three workouts in Florida at Palm Beach Downs, but it was announced last Friday that the Kentucky Derby no longer is a possibility for him due to a minor throat issue. Flameaway, not one of the individual horses in Pool Two of the KDFW, won last Saturday’s Grade III Sam F. Davis at Tampa Bay Downs by a half-length at 10-1. Catholic Boy, sent away as a 3-5 favorite in the 1 1/16-mile event, finished second. Vino Rosso came in third at 2-1. A Canadian-bred Scat Daddy colt trained by Mark Casse, Flameaway was assigned a career-best 92 Beyer Speed Figure for his Tampa triumph. In Flameway’s only previous 2018 start, he won Gulfstream’s Kitten’s Joy at about 7 1/2 furlongs on the grass Jan. 6. He also was a Grade III winner on the dirt last year. He won the off-the-turf Grade III Bourbon at 1 1/16 miles on a sloppy track Oct. 8 at Keeneland (71 Beyer). I checked the KDFW Pool Two odds for Catholic Boy just before he started last Saturday. He was 13-1 at that time. Not surprisingly, his price did drift up some to 16-1 after he lost. LATEST ODDS AT THE WYNN For comparison purposes, these were the prices at the Wynn Race Book in Las Vegas as of Monday for the individual horses in Pool Two of the KDFW: 7-1 Bolt d’Oro 8-1 McKinzie 12-1 Good Magic 15-1 Audible 18-1 Mask 18-1 Solomini 20-1 Instilled Regard 25-1 Catholic Boy 25-1 Principe Guilherme 30-1 Avery Island 40-1 Free Drop Billy 40-1 Mendelssohn 40-1 Mourinho 40-1 Sporting Chance 40-1 Strike Power 50-1 Firenze Fire 50-1 Untamed Domain 60-1 Combatant 60-1 Tiz Mischief 75-1 Copper Bullet 75-1 Enticed 75-1 Retirement Fund UNIQUE BELLA’S VICTORY ELICITS RAVE REVIEWS Pounded down to 1-10 favoritism, Unique Bella won Santa Anita’s Grade II Santa Maria by nine ridiculously easy lengths last Saturday in her 2018 debut. It was her first start since her initial Grade I score in the La Brea at the Great Race Place on Dec. 26. Unique Bella now has won seven of nine lifetime starts. The 4-year-old Pennsylvania-bred Tapit filly, who resides in the Hollendorfer barn, had not recorded a triple-digit Beyer Speed Figure prior to the Santa Maria. Not only was Unique Bella assigned a 109 Beyer Speed Figure for her Santa Maria performance, it was the highest Beyer in this race since India Divina recorded a 114 in 1999. Beyer Speed Figures for the Santa Maria go back to 1991. The only Santa Maria winner besides India Divina to post a bigger Beyer than Unique Bella was Exotic Wood, who was credited with a 114 in 1998. THE LATEST NTRA POLLS This is this week’s NTRA Top Thoroughbred Poll: Rank Points Horse (First-Place Votes) 1. 393 West Coast (20) 2. 328 World Approval 3. 243 Gun Runner (20) 4. 225 Roy H (1) 5. 217 Unique Bella (1) 6. 214 Forever Unbridled 7. 137 Gunnevera 8. 131 Abel Tasman 9. 100 Sharp Azteca 10. 75 Beach Patrol Here is this week’s NTRA Top 3-Year-Old Poll: Rank Points Horse (First-Place Votes) 1. 398 Good Magic (28) 2. 344 Bolt d’Oro (11) 3. 309 McKinzie (1) 4. 228 Audible 5. 201 Instilled Regard 6. 194 Solomini 7. 147 Avery Island 8. 76 Flameaway 9. 75 Catholic Boy 10. 67 Mask MY ANNUAL HALL OF FAME PLEA Will this be the year that Rags to Riches finally makes it onto the Hall of Fame ballot? Rags to Riches won the Grade I Belmont Stakes in 2007. Despite stumbling at the start, she won the 1 1/2-mile classic when defeating no less than Curlin, who subsequently would be voted Horse of the Year not once, but twice. Curlin was elected to the Hall of Fame in 2014. Owned by Michael Tabor and Derek Smith and trained by Todd Pletcher, Rags to Riches became the first filly to win the Belmont in 102 years. Of course, no other filly has won the Belmont since Rags to Riches did so a decade ago. Only three fillies have ever won the Belmont. Ruthless and Tanya were the other two besides Rags to Riches. Ruthless won the inaugural Belmont in 1867. Tanya won it in 1905. Rags to Riches registered a total four Grade I victories during her career. In addition to the Belmont, she won the Grade I Kentucky Oaks, Grade I Santa Anita Oaks and Grade I Las Virgenes Stakes on her way to being voted an Eclipse Award as champion 3-year-old filly of 2007. It is true that Rags to Riches made only seven career starts. But while some may regard that as justification for keeping her off the Hall of Fame ballot, it is to Rags to Riches’ credit that despite not having raced more than she did, she won more Grade I races during her career, as short as it was, than both Winning Colors (three) and Genuine Risk (two). Genuine Risk and Winning Colors, like Rags to Riches, won a Triple Crown race. And both Genuine Risk and Winning Colors are in the Hall of Fame, as they should be. Genuine Risk won the 1980 Kentucky Derby. Winning Colors captured the Run for the Roses in 1988. You would think a filly who achieved something of such historic magnitude in the sport as the first filly to win the Belmont in more than a century would be a slam-dunk to at least get on the Hall of Fame ballot. Rags to Riches became eligible for the Hall of Fame in 2013. But she did not appear on the ballot in 2013, 2014, 2015, 2016 and 2017. The fact that Rags to Rich has yet to even get on the Hall of Fame ballot is beyond absurd. I can only hope that the Hall of Fame’s Nominating Committee sees the error of its ways and finally puts Rags to Riches on the ballot this year. But my guess is she will get a raw deal again in 2018.
By Johnny D
Last weekend, Chris Littlemore finished first in the National Handicapping Championship in Las Vegas to bag $800,000 and a 2018 Eclipse Award as the nation’s top equine prognosticator. He outplayed 567 foes, representing 701 total entries, to earn $384.30 from 53 mythical $2 win/place bets over the three-day extravaganza. Littlemore also earned spots in the next Breeders’ Cup Betting Challenge, Pegasus World Cup Betting Championship and NHC. Winning the NHC is a monumental achievement. It’s such a challenging accomplishment that in 19 presentations no player has done it twice! And it’s not like they haven’t tried. This year, 12 former champs aimed to pose with the big check--defending NHC champion Ray Arsenault (2017), Paul Matties (2016), John O’Neil (2015), Jose Arias (2014), Michael Beychok (2012), John Doyle (2011), Brian Troop (2010), John Conte (2009), Richard Goodall (2008), Stanley Bavlish (2007), Steve Wolfson Jr. (2003) and Judy Wagner (2001). Additionally, several high-profile players were alive for some juicy bonuses if they could parlay earlier tournament success into an NHC title. Players, eligible bonuses and qualifying tournaments were: Nisan Gabby – $3 million (BCBC); Mike Ferrozzo – $2 million (NHC Tour); John Ukleja – $1,000,000 (Hawthorne/Xpressbet); Paul Langley – $1,000,000 (Hawthorne/Xpressbet) and Ed Peters – $500,000 (The Big One at Laurel). As a former NHC competitor, yours truly bows at the waist to those that emerge from the yearly Treasure Island scrum with a prize. The NHC first demands qualification. No purchase necessary…or even available. The format includes three days-worth of handicapping and muythical wagering. A real grind. Frustrating. Painful. Exhilarating. Depressing. In short…a horseplayer’s dream! Imagine a gamut of emotions sandwiched into a few Sin City afternoons. Cursing. Cheering. Ticket tearing and cashing. Photo finishes, narrow wins and bad beats. Races are delivered in virtually non-stop fashion, mostly hi-definition on surrounding monitors as large as billboards. As you can imagine, in an environment containing so much external stimuli it’s difficult to concentrate. But focus is key. Decisions matter. So many decisions. Go with #3 as lone speed at Gulfstream at 15-1 odds? Back #8 at Oaklawn at 7-1 with a much-the-best Thoro-Graph pattern? Or, play #10 at Laurel, a 6-1 shot that’s unbeaten over a wet track? C’mon, pick one. Clock’s ticking. Or pick two. They’re approaching the gate. Why not play all three? One of them has to win. Right? What if all three win? You’ll be in front. You don’t want to be in front. It’s too early. You’ll become a target. You don’t want to be a target. That’s too much pressure. Don’t be silly, all three can’t win. Just pick one and let’s go. There are like a thousand more races to play. C’mon, they’re at the gate! According to scientists (presumably), subjects in similar prolonged, close-contact, high-pressure situations, gradually develop a united front against common foes. Even though they actually are in competition they gradually begin to root for each other and against everyone else—especially those whose names appear on the leaderboard. They begin to share success, failure, pain, and frustration. High fives and consoling pats on the back soon are exchanged between competitors that hours earlier were complete strangers. Friendships form. Some lifelong. At the conclusion of the NHC, one player must emerge victorious. However, each individual participant is cognizant of the gargantuan odds against it actually being them. But it could happen. After all, if anyone in the world understands an upset, it’s members of this group. Longshots win about as often as that kid in the movie sees dead people--All the time! Going in each asks, ‘Why not me?’ ‘Indeed, why not you!’ According to published reports, Chris Littlemore scaled the handicapper’s Everest using only a pen and Daily Racing Form past performances. No sheets, no computer printouts, black boxes, graphs, stats and trends, tea leaves or crystal balls. Amazing! He went ‘Old School’ and emerged victorious. Of course, he had a few edges: First, he hails from Canada--just like last season’s NHC champ Ray Arsenault. Why neighbors to the north suddenly have produced back-to-back NHC champs is anyone’s guess. Maybe all those cold winters cooped-up inside playing the races actually were beneficial? Second, Littlemore’s a former auto parts guy from Canada. Can anyone recall another Canadian-based auto parts guy that made good south of the border? Over the years, the NHC format has evolved so that everyone doesn’t compete on all three days. The first day winnows the field to 70 players and the second produces a top 10 group that comprises the Final Table. That’s both good and bad news. Obviously, picking winners at decent prices is the goal, especially out of the gate. You ‘gotta be in it to win it. But imagine the aggravation level of being stuck on the sidelines Sunday watching Final Table play while simultaneously cashing tickets on 20-1 winners! As Day 2 NHC action unfolded Saturday in Vegas, Xpressbet account holders attempted to outscore XBTV.com personality Millie Ball online in Week Six Beat the Host action. She checked in with a total of $22.50 based on $5 win wagers on one horse in each of 8 mandatory races. Ball’s total, and that of most of this season’s hosts, was not insurmountable. Tamara Hecker won the $1,500 weekly top prize with $256 in earnings. Fernando Jose ($234.50) was second and John Veneziano ($222) third. They collect $750 and $250, respectively. Just two weeks of BTH competition remain, so if you haven’t whipped the host and qualified for the $25,000 Championship Round, you’d better hurry. Santa Anita’s Tom Quigley and Pegasus World Cup Betting Championship winner Eddie Olczyk will host, in that order. If you’ve ever considered attempting to qualify for the NHC, a great place to begin that journey is with Xpressbet’s Beat the Host competition. It’s fun, affordable and limited to Xpressbet account holders, so you don’t have to beat the world to collect! Register free today and we’ll see you Saturday. Race On!