I spent the weekend in Saratoga, hence the lack of posts and updates over the past couple of days. Saturday’s card was awesome, so I’ll do my best to give a recap of my bets and some of the spectacular performances I witnessed.
My sister and I were trying to plan a trip for us to get away this summer with her boyfriend and another mutual friend of ours. She suggested coming up to Saratoga for Alabama weekend because she loves the town and restaurants, and could spend a few days browsing the shops with our friend, Cassandra. I had taken her boyfriend, Chuck, to Monmouth a couple of times this summer to give him a taste of what horse racing is all about, so I figured the two of us could attend the races at Saratoga while the girls stayed in town.
Once we arrived in Saratoga, the girls split off from us, and Chuck and I headed off to the racetrack. Due to some nice weather and an excellent card of races, the track was packed, but we secured a couple of seats in the carousel for a brief handicapping overview. I had showed Chuck how to read the racing form in the past so he was pretty good at determining who the main contenders were in each race. As the NYRA handicapping show, Talking Horses, started up, I told Chuck to make a note of Andy Serling’s picks since he usually is able to provide some insight that you might not have come up with yourself. We spent most of our time talking about the two stakes of the day, the Alabama and Sword Dancer, since those were the headliners and two of the easier races to handicap.
After hitting up Shake Shack for lunch, we took our seats in the grandstand to watch the day’s races. I’ll highlight a few of the early races that are worth talking about since I didn’t get a chance to post my picks on Friday night.
In the first race, both Chuck and I liked Master Splash, who was dropping into a claiming race after a string of solid performances versus New York-bred allowance company. I had stressed to Chuck previously that assessing class levels was a very important tool to employ when handicapping a race, which was our reason for liking the horse. Unfortunately, he didn’t run very well, coming on belatedly to finish fifth. Instead, Cybertron won at a generous 12-1, getting the day off to a positive start for Irad Ortiz, Jr., who was back after a scary gate accident Friday and looking to build some positive momentum leading up to his ride on Questing in the Alabama later in the afternoon. I could make a bit of sense out of the result since Cybertron had showed some promise in the past but I was wary of his bad habits and overall greenness. He displayed none of that on Saturday and was an easy winner in fast time.
Since the next race was for two year-olds, many of which were first time starters, I suggested that Chuck and I take a walk down to the paddock to see if we could notice anything about their appearances. This race was at 1 1/16 miles on the turf, so I explained that we were probably looking for a first time starter that was fairly laid back and had some size and length to him, since those are common indications of a horse that will appreciate more distance. Based on looks, we selected second time starter Amen Kitten and Shug McGaughey firster Norumbega as our favorites. They both ran evenly, but we overlooked the less visually flashy Sonofasamurai, who was the only horse in the race to have a good performance going two turns on the turf. With a lesson learned, we’ll skip ahead to the fourth race, another field of two year-olds.
This time, before even seeing the tote board, I predicted that Todd Pletcher’s first time starter, Violence, was probably going to be a strong favorite. I told Chuck that I had heard some hype about him and Pletcher was in the midst of compiling an amazing record with first time starting two year-olds at this meet. Not to mention that the horse sold for $600,000 as a yearling and was from the family of Alabama winners Sky Beauty and Maplejinsky. Sure enough, Violence opened up at 4-5 and stayed right around those odds for most of the wagering. While watching the horses down by the paddock, we also liked the looks of D. Wayne Lukas’s more experienced runner, Titletown Five, who is out of the excellent racemare D’Wildcat Speed, and Orb, who was going out for Shug McGaughey and Stuart Janney. However, I warned Chuck that it was usually best to watch McGaughey’s first time starters rather than bet on them, so he boxed Violence and Titletown Five in the exacta.
As soon as the horses broke from the gate, I leaned over to Chuck to point out that Orb reared up and failed to leave the gate with the rest of the field. This was probably for the best because I’d hate to think I had talked us out of a long shot. Predictably, Titletown Five set the pace, but Violence soon pounced on him and as they ran past our seats in front of the eighth pole, they had begun to separate themselves from the field. The only danger to us cashing in appeared to miraculously be Orb, who had swung widest of all into the stretch and was barreling past horses as if he had just figured out this was a race. The two leaders had gotten too far in front for Orb to run them down, but he only lost the race by about a length. Of course Chuck and I were happy to have won, but even he pointed out that the third place finisher had run the best race of all. I immediately messaged my father that I had just seen the 2013 Kentucky Derby winner make his debut, and I wasn’t talking about the winner. I’m sure Violence is a nice horse and with that pedigree he will certainly stretch out, but McGaughey almost never has a firster ready to run well on the dirt and it’s scary to think how good this horse can be once he figures things out and gets some more experience under his belt—a “Horse to Watch” if I’ve ever seen one.
Chuck was only betting about $4 per race in an attempt to be conservative, which is smart for someone who is just figuring out how to pick winners. But after his win bets finished second in the next two races, I suggested we tap into some money my father had generously given to Chuck for the two of us to play around with, so that he could have a few more chances to win something.
In the seventh race, Chuck was adamant that he liked Shrewd One, one of the horses that Joe Bravo, who was up to ride Turbo Compressor in the Sword Dancer, had taken the mount on. Happy to see a familiar name from our days at Monmouth, and liking Shrewd One’s consistently fast Beyer speed figures, Chuck deemed him a good bet at 3-1. I agreed, but pointed out that I was partial to Good Morning Diva, who was turning back in distance after a few tries versus tougher stakes competition. I decided to use my father’s money to play a trifecta using those two horses on top with some of the other contenders underneath.
Shrewd One led most of the way before getting passed by Good Morning Diva at the eighth pole with Hello Lover, another horse we had used, bearing down on them both. These three battled neck and neck through the final furlong before Shrewd One found something extra and surged ahead at the wire to win by a nose over Hello Lover. We hit the trifecta and Chuck got to cash another bet.
Feeling good about that score, I decided to put the rest of the free money into a pick 3 comprising the last three races we were going to be watching, ending with the stakes double. We had already discussed the two stakes races at length and Chuck basically shared my opinions. However, the upcoming eighth race was a bit tougher, and we each liked a few different horses. In the end, we used three horses in the first leg of the pick 3, but were relying heavily on the reliable Strong Impact, who I felt was an overlay at odds of around 3-1.
I was a bit concerned when Marquet Cat sped off to the lead and appeared to have no intentions of looking back, but Strong Impact put in a determined run through the final furlong to just nail him on the wire in a perfectly timed ride by Javier Castellano. Having made it through that leg, I explained to Chuck that I had played a few different combinations in the pick 3. We would be alive if either Point of Entry or Turbo Compressor came through in the Sword Dancer, but we would much prefer the former since I leaned heavily on him. We once again took the walk to see the horses on the way to get saddled and both agreed Point of Entry towered over the field in stature, especially when contrasted with the relatively tiny Turbo Compressor. Having already seen a few McGaughey horses run that day, Chuck had come to recognize his philosophy of letting horses mature slowly and the strapping Point of Entry certainly epitomized that.
Once they broke from the gate, the result never seemed to be in doubt. Turbo Compressor got the lead, but the other jockeys had apparently seen what happened at Monmouth and this time they really turned up the pressure going down the backstretch for the second time. Meanwhile, as everyone was gunning for Turbo Compressor, John Velazquez had Point of Entry under a tight hold just in behind that leader and looking ready to explode at any moment. Coming into the stretch, Velazquez angled the long legged Point of Entry outside of the leading pack and found a narrow opening between horses. From there it was over. None of the others have the finishing speed of Point of Entry or the stamina to produce such a powerful kick after already running a mile and a quarter. Al Khali ran on late for second in what was one of his better races but he was no match for the winner.
Now entering the final months of this season, Point of Entry is poised to become the most dominant long distance turf runner the United States has seen since English Channel. I’m sure there are Europeans thinking about coming over for the Breeders’ Cup Turf, but I suspect Point of Entry may be better than we’ve even seen yet and I wonder if everyone may be running for second in that race. The usually humble McGaughey has said openly that he doesn’t even think he’s gotten to the bottom of this horse yet and he doesn’t believe we’ve seen his best race.
Now perhaps I’m getting ahead of myself, but the success of Point of Entry could also be important for American bloodstock because there currently is no high profile son of Dynaformer standing at stud in the United States. The extinction of Dynaformer’s male line would be a terrible loss since he has injected stamina and soundness into his offspring like no other sire the U.S. has produced in many years. There is also excellent dirt pedigree on Point of Entry’s dam’s side, so he has all the makings of being a versatile sire. For this reason alone, I’m rooting for him to conquer the world.
Now that I’ve gotten that out of my system, we’ll get back to the races: Up next was the Alabama, our final race of the day and the last leg of our Pick 3. I told Chuck that although we were alive to three horses, I had played the combination ending in Questing, my pick in the race, for $4, which means we would get double the posted payout if she won. We would also be winners if Grace Hall or Sea Island were victorious, but I had used them only on smaller backup tickets. Questing was the speed of the race and it appeared as if she’d be able to set slow, uncontested fractions early, which would give her the edge she was probably going to need to beat a quality horse like Grace Hall. Chuck didn’t need any more convincing and he played a couple of bucks to win on Questing for good measure.
The Alabama started directly in front of our grandstand seats so we had an excellent view of the break as Questing burst forth from the gate as if she were on a mission. Irad Ortiz guided her over to the rail to set what was supposed to be a relaxed, measured pace, but Questing had other ideas. She was ready to run fast and anyone who wanted to stay close to her was going to have to run fast, too. It seemed as if the jockeys on Zo Impressive, Grace Hall, and In Lingerie all expected the pace to be slow because they took their mounts out of their respective games by pushing them to stay close to Questing early.
I was happy to see Questing with a clear lead, but I was waiting for the first quarter to be posted. And then I saw 22 4/5 flash up on the board. How can that be right? I immediately told Chuck we were in big trouble and that Ortiz better slow her down on the backstretch. Then the half mile split was posted in 46 flat, followed by three-quarters in 1:09 3/5. I again leaned over and told Chuck that she was running this race as if it were a sprint and that things were not looking good for our pick 3. But then I noticed that Grace Hall was dropping back. The two others chasing her, Zo Impressive and In Lingerie, were being hard ridden and Questing appeared to just be at a leisurely gallop. Chuck noticed her starting to increase her lead and he stood up out of his seat. They hit the top of the stretch at which point I got a better view of the horses and it was clear: Questing was doing her best Secretariat impression and this race was over. Ortiz hit her a few times with the whip and she started ducking in and out, but it didn’t matter. She had run this field off their feet. By the time she hit the eighth pole everyone was standing and Chuck and I were celebrating. Questing continued to increase her lead and hit the finish line nine lengths in front, stopping the clock in 2:01 1/5 seconds. Having seen many an Alabama, I knew this was an exceptional time. A quick check of Wikipedia revealed it to be the third fastest clocking in history and the fastest since the great Go For Wand set the record in 1990.
On our walk back into town all we talked about was Questing and her spectacular performance. This is a filly who was nearly retired three races ago due to being a disappointment running on the grass. Now she’s probably going to be the champion three year-old filly and is heading towards a showdown with reigning champion Royal Delta in the Breeders’ Cup. She got a 106 Beyer for this race but anyone who watches the replay knows that doesn’t tell the whole story. People are still hailing Bodemeister as the best three year-old in the country after his Kentucky Derby performance, but I think you can make a strong case that this filly even topped that. This was the performance of the meet and will surely go down in history as one of the greatest Alabamas ever.
Chuck and I each took in $91.50 for the pick 3 and went back into town with a decent profit, considering the relatively small amount of money we had invested. But that aside, it was so refreshing for me to see a relative newcomer not only get excited about winning money, but also come to understand the special feeling that goes along with witnessing a horse accomplish what Questing did. Chuck thought, as Questing was ducking in and out through the stretch, it was as if she was saying to Irad, “What do you think you’re doing with that whip? I don’t need any encouragement from you, I just love to run.”