July 13, 2001

Deciphering Del Mar
Believe it or not, it's only 120 hours from now that the first day of racing of the 2001 Del Mar meet will be in the books.

While the concept is almost as good as the reality (and hey, even if the quality of the overnights isn't that much different at Del Mar than Hollywood, where would you rather be watching: Solana Beach or Inglewood? Thought so.), that still leaves some time to prepare for the annual and gorgeous rite of summer that Bing Crosby and his cronies had the genius to claim was "where the turf meets the surf."

It's all that, and more. Toss in a lush turf course and some hair-raising hair pin maint-track turns, and Del Mar adds six weeks of variety to what can be a long and trying Southern California season.

Just as with short distances, the winners in short meets are typically those who can get clear early and then coast to the wire. So it goes with Del Mar, especially considering that those big bettors and pros who prefer to wait a couple of weeks will be tackling you head-on toward the end of the meet. Better to lock in some cushion of profits from the get-go than play catch-up against the top players.

That said, let's take a look at the bad favorites and the upset winners who ushered in the first 12 programs of the 2000 and 1999 Del Mar stands, with a hopeful eye that some of these episodes will trend into 2001.

Bad favorites?
First off, despite its reputation for playing host to wild and miraculous upsets, Del Mar, especially in its first two weeks of action, conforms to the typical behavior of favorites in general.

In 2000, 40 of the first 103 favorites of the meet were able to win. That's a very healthy percentage. Same went for 1999, when 35 of the first 103 favorites won. All of which suggests that indiscriminate attempts at beating the chalk will probably result in the chalk swinging right back.

Odds-on favorites didn't yield easily, either. In 2000, there were 24 favorites who were even-money or lower on the tote board. Fifteen of those won. In 1999, there were 20 odds-on faves during the first two weeks; 11 of them won.

While the overall stats on favorites on odds-on choices seem bleak, there is hope on the horizon.

The worst of the odds-on favorites
From this sampling of favorites and odds-on horses, it becomes apparent, based on what happened in 1999 and 2000, that three recurring themes were particularly harmful to very strong public choices:

1. The drop off a layoff or drop off a good race. This recurring racing theme should throw up a red flag anywhere, but at Del Mar, the warning signals are accompanied by sirens and flashing lights. Del Mar is not a meet at which you want to return after a layoff, the longer the worse.

Especially at the very lowest claiming and maiden-claiming levels, Del Mar races are much more contested and competitive than at the other Southern California plants. Add to that that the best trainers want to go into the entire meet with as live and in-form stock as possible. The culls will be routinely let go via fire sale, layoff or not. Stay away.

The next two themes involve the two-year-olds:

2. The free-running, frontrunning two-year-old. These guys (and gals) have looked sensational in their races outside of Del Mar, going gate to wire without so much as having been breathed on by their competition. They look to continue their roll at the beach.

If it's Del Mar, you can bet that they will most definitely face a much stiffer challenge early than they've ever seen. Moreover, despite Del Mar's short homestretch -- the shortest of the three major Southern California tracks -- most sprinters will want to have some kind of demonstrated ability in the late stages. If a horse doesn't measure up in its late-pace or final-fraction ratings, especially when the odds are miserly, look for its winning ways to end at Del Mar. The combination of a sterner early test and a track that demands some kind of late-ability will do the hotshot two-year-old in.

(Note: All the better if the two-year-old in question is shipping in from Hollywood Park, a track notorious for having two-year-olds streak all the way to the wire unmolested due to a short run to the far turn and a surface that promotes the frontrunning romp.)

3. Way-overbet two-year-old first-time starter. Baffert notwithstanding -- and even Bobby B. usually waits till the middle of the meet to unveil his very best juvenile prospects -- odds-on two-year-old debutantes at Del Mar during the first two weeks just aren't worth the risk.

The corollary is to find the experienced two-year-old in the bunch, believe it or not. No matter how bad-looking the experienced two-year-old's running line(s) looks, that horse probably has a little edge on the overhyped runner. Try it -- it works.

Armed with a select list of instances in which the "strongest" favorites are actually at their weakest, we now open the floor to general Del Mar longshot principles.

As mentioned earlier, Del Mar low-claiming and maiden-claiming fields are a little more contested and contentious than they are at other Southern California tracks. When the favorite is hard to locate in a full field, the bonkers horses (20-1 and up) can win. How?

Look for the full field to feature a genuine pace, one that figures to be contested and faster than is good for the frontrunners. If those criteria met, it's time to select the longshot.

Demand a long longshot that has shown an ability to close and pass horses in the late stages of its previous large-field affairs. The running lines don't have to look like Monarchos' Kentucky Derby, but look for a horse to be able to close from seventh or eigthth or worse at the second call and finish third or fourth. If a longshot has shown that sort of ability in the past, its clunk-up, also-ran style can be rewarded at Del Mar as much as it is penalized at the other California tracks.

And if the race your longshot is in is at seven furlongs, all the better.

While logical longshots on dirt have that closing look about them, the opposite is true on turf. If you find a relatively inexperienced turf horse who figures to get clear on the front end, that's the bomb play.

Hot list of win-early trainers
Here are several conditioners -- a couple of high-profilers, more who are not so -- who figure to saddle horses who outrun their reasonably generous (5-1 or higher) odds:

Bobby Frankel won with three such horses in the first two weeks of last year's meet, and should be in similarly good shape at the start this year.

Bob Baffert was the Frankel of Del Mar 1999, winning with three 5-1-and-up horses the first 12 cards of that year. Baffert is perennially the King of Del Mar, and when his runners go off at uncharacteristically high odds, look out.

Ian Jory seems like he's asleep most of the year, but he snaps out of it in a hurry at the outset of Del Mar. Last year, he was more liable to finish second with his surprises, but the year before he had a couple of opening-two-week shockers.

Vladimir Cerin has always had the talent, and he pulls it out for the world to see at the first couple of weeks of Del Mar. His long ones must always be considered "live."

Peter Eurton is another who'll sneak up on you, even more so since he doesn't have the reputation of even the Jorys and Cerins of the world. Especially dangerous at big odds in the runner-up position.

And Jose Silva, J. Eric Kruljac and Howard Zucker are capable of unloading some live longshots during the first 12 days of action, too.

So there you have it. Hope these tips help, and, as always, enjoy the one-of-a-kind handicapping and sensory delight that is Del Mar.

Even Better Analysis
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Enter July Contest Anytime During Month
If you like all that, there's a good chance you'll like playing against your fellow On-Line at the the Short Line readers and other handicappers in the July Free-Form/Iron Survivor Preliminary Edition of the Big-Prize Handicapping Contest.

See you next time with a big analysis of the beginning of Saratoga 2001. As always, thanks for your continued readership.

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