January 26, 2001

A Brighter Beginning
This week, no blackouts or talk of the ultimate blackout (i.e., death) in the opening section.

Instead, let's get right to the stakes action going on tomorrow at Gulfstream Park, where they run one of the most time-honored and traditional preps for the Florida Derby, the Hutcheson Stakes at seven furlongs.

Unless you haven't opened Daily Racing Form all week or checked the industry news Web sites in the last few days or are just a one-dimensional student of the game oblivious to what's going on outside of your room, you know the Hutcheson is on tap for Saturday and have probably heard countless story lines coming out of this year's renewal. You at least know what track it's at.

Yes, City Zip and Yonaguska are rejoining the rivalry they established last year as juveniles. Yes, Tru Bull will be in there for trainer Nick Zito, both of whom need to do a better job of trying to harness some of the horse's wicked early speed. Yes, the ones who do well here will move on to the Fountain of Youth a few weeks down the road, where division heavyweights like A P Valentine and Macho Uno could be waiting.

But as we said in this column a couple of weeks ago, the three-year-olds are not going to dominate each other, not this early in the year, anyway.

For evidence, just look at Tru Bull last time, when he ran out-of-the-money as the fave.

True, some of them do manage to keep winning, like Millennium Wind did, holding form last Sunday at Santa Anita, but even then, his margin of victory was just a grinding half-length. And as we said two weeks ago, the experiments are under way, which is perhaps why Millennium Wind found himself a little closer to a defeat than usual.

Millennium Wind was rated off the pace for the first time in his young career, and not all horses will respond favorably to the unfamiliar patience. The ones that do, go on. The ones that don't...

...end up in shorter races, such as the Hutcheson, with its one-turn seven-panel trip. Even Tru Bull, if he's unrateable around two turns, can go longer and stronger this time.

But will he? That is the question.

The way the race shapes up to ALL-IN-ONE V5, he might, though it's probably not going to be worth betting on. The software also likes the rivals, Yonaguska and City Zip, in that order. Of course, so does the track oddsmaker, though in the opposite order.

The mild play in here might be Diablo's Choice, at 8-1 on the morning line. Unfortunately, he has the same unwavering front-running style as everyone else in the race, and that will probably get him into serious trouble.

But until they run 'em on the track, you never can tell.

Practical Pointer #4 (of a continuing series)
Track profile, or race dynamics?

Do front-runners win because there's something going on with the surface underfoot, or do they win when they get easy leads, regardless of the surface or its supposed bias?

Conversely, do closers do better the hotter it is on the front? Or is there really a universal bias thwarting them just about everywhere?

Horses are creatures of habit, and an awful lot of them prefer racing on the lead, or pretty close to it, at least. In particular, the young ones (like those three-year-olds in the Hutcheson) will not change their style until their trainers whip it out of them or the horses themselves begin to understand that it's better (at least to us as bettors) if they do some running at the end of the race as well as at the beginning.

So in short dirt races for youngsters, it's not surprising to see a cast of characters who will fight to the death for the lead, even if it kills them. (Not literally, of course.) Yet we know that these horses, especially the maidens, often prevail while going gate-to-wire. What gives?

If you think about a horse race, especially those for the young, still-developing horses, one horse will lead, and the others will do their best to keep up, because they know no other way. For them to overhaul the leader, they'll need to have something in reserve, which typically is hard to do when you're trying to keep up early.

So a front-runner can easily wire a field full of other like-minded (or is it like-styled?) animals. It's the old notion of "speed of the speed."

Conversely, a lineup devoid of that cutthroat early speed, maybe what you'd find in your marathon grass race for older horses, say, will offer a different dynamic. While it's one that should still favor the front-runner, the horses in this type of race know what they're doing when they turn for home and kick on the after-burners.

Which brings us back to the original question: track profile, or race dynamics?

In ALL-IN-ONE is a measure called NTL, standing for Need-To-Lead. NTL is also expressed in each race as an average for all the horses in a race. The higher the NTL, the fiercer the competition for the lead, usually. (If you don't use ALL-IN-ONE, not to worry--you can usually get a sense of NTL by simply glancing down the first-call column of each horse in a race.)

In the Hutcheson, the average NTL for the race is 5.2, which is pretty high, as is anything greater than 5. Tru Bull's individual NTL is a brilliant 9, while Diablo Bull's is a not-far-back 8. While that might prove suicidal for each of them, they should be in a position where they're used to being and where they know how to win. They rank 1-2 in NTL in the race.

On the other hand, Daring Pegasus, another front-running type in the race, has a lowish NTL of 3 and an NTL rank in the 10-horse field of 7. It's not hard to see, at a glance, he'll probably get consumed early, unless he changes style dramatically.

While most of the fans out there would equate a high average NTL for a race to set things up for a one-run closer or other rallying type, the mutuels tend to work against it--and the prices on a front-runner in a high-average NTL race can be juicy.

A look at the Friday, Jan. 19, card at Aqueduct supports the case. In the seventh race that day, six furlongs NW1 allowance fillies and mares, the race's average NTL was 5.5, strongly suggesting a sought-after pace.

But Cherokee Racer, NTL 8 and ranked second in NTL in the race, figured to be able to go with whatever pace was on, and she did just that, leading at the half en route to a four length plus score--at 14-1.

Super Sunday and the Really Big Prize
Super Bowl XXXV in Tampa might be a veritable snooze-fest, but there's one sure-fire way to spice up your Sunday, other than with five-alarm Tex-Mex tailgate-quality chili.

The Sunday Division of the Big-Prize Handicapping Contest is always up for grabs, and you couldn't have picked a better time to jump in than this weekend.

That's because whoever walks away from the month of January (and this Sunday is the final Sunday of the month) with the greatest mutuel total in the Sunday Division of the contest will do so with an extra $250 in his or her pockets, plus a copy of ALL-IN-ONE V5.

Translation: You never can tell when you'll connect on the bomb that will win you the monthly prize. It only takes one. So play this weekend and take part in a competition that'll at least will have some intrigue.

Don't miss out. And don't just talk off steam. Have something to show for your handicapping. Enter this weekend!

Cycles, Other Things to Check Out
From last week, remember we rambled on poetically (if not effectively) about lean, hairy parts and fat, fleshy parts, and this is a case of the fat, fleshy parts.

Sure, the talk was about cycles, but this spike upward hardly qualifies as a nice, gentle sine wave.

Of course we speak of the Live Longshots page on the Cynthia Publishing Company Web site, which began a truly gravity-defying run last Saturday, cooled off a little Sunday and Monday, before resuming Wednesday and Thursday and continuing on to Friday, where Clovelly ground out a win at 41-1 at Aqueduct.

Where she stops, nobody knows, but if you're strapped for time and want a quick read on a few horses who might outrun their (usually) large odds, without a lot of misguided talking off steam or sensitive egos, do check out the Live Longshots page on the Web site (linked at Today's Picks on the Home Page).

The reasons for the horses being listed are plenty, but it's mainly a matter of a nice morning line and a vote of top-three confidence from ALL-IN-ONE. There've been worse ways to pick 'em, and while reasons are helpful to learn about handicapping, they don't always satisfactorily explain why the horse win, particularly if the forecast pace scenario doesn't come through, or the horse changes style, or there's a late scratch that wreaks havoc with a pre-race analysis.

Besides, these are longshots, and value is the overarching factor. It's been said that if you think a horse has a chance at big odds (like at 50-1, or even 20-1 or 10-1) you bet it first and ask questions later.

Hopefully you've been betting them lately, even if the questions are squirming inside you!

And finally, the Racing News link on the Home Page is back in action. The news automatically updates each time you visit (as long as something has happened in the world of racing since your last check), though you might want to refresh your browser or even clear the cache before viewing.

Through it all, we remain humble and recall the spirit of the ancient sages of the Jewish faith who remind us that one of the highest and best and purest forms of giving is to do so anonymously.

As always, we are indebted to you and your readership and thank you for spending part of your weekend with us. Until next time, stay well.

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