What is it about grass races? They're exciting. They're nearly never decided (for sure) until the last jump. They're generally showcases for the best horse. That said, they are chaotic enough that just a single misstep by the standout is frequently sufficient to foil its journey to the winner's circle. In short, turf racing is in many regards the best and highest display of the Thoroughbred sport in North America.
There's another example of it every week, and last Saturday proves the point. Did you see With Anticipation's final-stride foiling of Denon in Saratoga's Sword Dancer Invitational? What a horserace! What a racehorse! (Say it twice!)
If you weren't on the planet the past week -- and therefore missed the race or one of its several thousand replays -- Denon, trained by Bobby Frankel and ridden by Edgar Prado, sat a patient trip for the first mile of the mile-and-a-half race. As the field bunched up midway around the final turn, Prado could wait no more, and quickly went along the hedge for the lead in uppper stretch. With a furlong left to go, Denon sailed away to a clear lead over the grudging but tiring frontrunner, Volponi. Denon's move appeared decisive.
While Denon, the 2-1 favorite, asserted himself, With Anticipation, the 28-10 second choice trained by Jonathan Sheppard and ridden by Pat Day, seemed up against it. Shadowing Denon almost the entire trip, With Anticipation looked like he was done for when Denon scooted clear in upper stretch, the deficit stretched out to a length -- with two horses to pass. Getting by Volponi would not be difficult, but making up a length on Denon, with only a furlong to do it, was a large task.
But leave it to a bona fide Grade I turf monster to get the job done. Day swung With Anticipation out very wide for the final eighth of a mile, maybe in a bit of deft race-riding, ensuring Denon wouldn't be able to detect something charging up late on the outside. With a sixteenth to go, Day's strategy was working -- and the finish line was looming.
But With Anticipation loomed larger, and tagged Denon in the last jump, or the last jump and a half, at most. Neither horse deserved to lose, as evidenced by the final-quarter-mile clockings: :23-and-change, all while in the unrelenting heat of battle.
Clearly, the endgame is everything in the chess match that is turf racing. Frontrunners can win, but they had best be ultra-snappy in the final furlong, not geared down and coasting the way frontrunners can steal a race on dirt. For the very best turf runners, the early and middle stages of a race will be virtually incidental -- if they have the lead, OK, but more likely they will be able to relax, relax, relax through both (or all three) turns before getting serious in the final straight.
That's where the turf race starts getting busy. The frontrunner will be asked for everything. The horses that have been watchdogging the leader will now try to go past. The horses that have been waiting on the hedge will try to burst through a seam on the inside, else swing wide after escaping the bottleneck that has tied them up for the first three-quarters of the proceedings. And the slowest of the slow-early runners will wait even more, getting straightened out in the final furlong and finding their best stride. It works more than you'd suspect.
While With Anticipation and Denon had their scintillating showdown a week ago, they had a warmup act in the form of Beat Hollow and Sarafan. Now, there is plenty of discussion about the latter pair, much of it focused on Beat Hollow's being "the greatest turf horse in the world." If so, why has Sarafan now defeated Beat Hollow, on the square, two times running?
Twenty days ago, in Del Mar's Eddie Read Handicap, Sarafan got the jump on Beat Hollow, winning by more than a length. Four months before that, the duo went shoulder to shoulder for the final sixteenth of the Explosive Bid Handicap at Fair Grounds, with Sarafan outwilling his archrival by a desperate neck.
What separates them? At the middle distances, late-kick. Beat Hollow seems to be more handy than Sarafan. That is, Beat Hollow will get into the race and involved in the stalking relatively early. Conversely, Sarafan will always be in the rear half of the field (if not dead-last) during the early stages. It matters little to him. In his last seven races, Sarafan has not failed to get his last furlong in under 12 seconds. Granted, he's won but two of those, but, clearly, he made those wins count.
Beat Hollow, on the other hand, has not been as blindingly brilliant as Sarafan inside the furlong grounds. Beat Hollow seems to want to have the lead by the eighth-pole, with nothing serious to challenge him at the end.
Now the two meet again Saturday afternoon at Arlington in the Arlington Million, at a mile and a quarter. And this year, the distance could be the separator...
That's because Beat Hollow wants the mile and a quarter, and bad. While he might not be lethally fast at a mile or nine furlongs, 10 furlongs seems to be his ideal trip, both genetically and competitively. He's three-for-three at a mile and a quarter. He could get the jump on Sarafan, not to mention everybody else.
Sarafan is winless at 10 furlongs, though he's tried it only once. In that one, he still displayed his sparkling late-run. Nonetheless, he's conceding a big edge to Beat Hollow in the distance department, given that one's perfection there and Sarafan's own lack of experience. You'd have to think that in this context, with this much money on the line, all signs point to Beat Hollow.
Then again, Sarafan has bested Beat Hollow twice, at odds of 8-1 in March and 4-1 in July. Will the luck push through a third time? That's the question.
Either way, Beat Hollow has been rated, again, the morning-line choice, 6-5 this time. Sarafan is 3-1 in the official track program, second in the Arlington linemaker's estimation. Next on the morning line is Forbidden Apple, 4-1, 10 months removed from his most recent win. His game seems too much like Beat Hollow's, however. And that bodes ill for the 'Apple.
If the big three (realistically, the big two and a half) seem unappetizing in terms of a juicy-paying win wager, there could be two options. Falcon Flight is hardly as talented as any of the top names, but his best would be within shouting distance here. Toss in his two-for-two mark over the local sod and the presence of leading local rider Rene Douglas in the saddle, and there've been worse stabs in the history of the hippodrome.
The other is Paolini, winner of some respectable big-money races in Europe and close runner-up to Mutamam in last year's Rothman's International. Even better, Paolini's trainer and jockey teamed up to score a 6-1 upset with Euro shipper
The rest of the Continentals seem outclassed, and unlike last year's Arlington Million, the American contingent looks more than up to defending home soil in this turf war.
Fast Capper's outlook, barring the foreign invaders, for Arlington's big Million Day card:
Best wishes for a prosperous Million Day
Jumping in at the midway point during Weekend 3 of the current contest. You can check out the current standings on our home page.
Things have also been hopping in the Weekday Hooky segment of the competition.
For complete details or to play, go to the Big-Prize Handicapping Contest entry page.
Good luck and good handicapping.
Here are two others, optimally played out on fast tracks, with a minimum of raceday scratches and changes.
As always, best wishes for a prosperous weekend.
Could you hit a home run if you knew what pitch was coming up? How about score a touchdown on a long pass play if you foresaw the defense stacking up against the run?
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Knowledge works best when you can relate to it, make it your own. In short, it becomes yours when you can easily grasp it or understand it. Such grasping or understanding isn't easy when all you've got is numbers and stats and pseudo-scientific mumbo-jumbo. That's knowledge? Nope, just numerology. And it does little for your true understanding of the fundamental, underlying truths of the game.
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