PLAYING THE MEET WITHIN THE MEET

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The road to the 2017 Kentucky Derby (G1) is nearing the end, but this Saturday still includes multiple preps with huge purse money and valuable Kentucky Derby (G1) points, including the $1,000,000 Santa Anita Derby (G1), the $1,000,000 Bluegrass (G2) at Keeneland and the $750,000 Wood Memorial (G2) at Aqueduct. These important three-year-old races bring together experienced stakes winners trying to get a final strong prep before the main event as well as a bevy of longshot hopefuls taking their last chance that may catapult them to Churchill Downs on the first Saturday in May. 

But that’s only part of the allure of these days...

These Derby preps are now part of multi-stakes cards designed to lure more than just Derby contenders. It’s also a time of year when many tracks offer along with the big race, plenty of additional added-money stakes races. Even maiden and allowance purses are higher than they would be during the rest of the meet.

For example, Oaklawn Park concludes its racing next week with a week-long Festival of the South leading up to the Arkansas Derby (G1). Later this month, Churchill Downs begins its meet on Derby week which even includes racing on a Tuesday! Plus the openings of Pimlico and Belmont Park follow soon thereafter with their own stakes jamborees.

With that in mind, take note of some common trends. First, each venue will be flooded with shippers, imported by out-of-town trainers that are either there for the big race or wanting to take advantage of the extra purse money. This is not a time when local horses dominate the race scene. Even a maiden special weight race can become a battleground for a bunch of out-of-towners taking their best maiden and trying to win on a big day. A maiden shipping in with high profile connections did not make the journey just to get a good workout. Whether it is debuting or has some racing experience, the shipping maiden is usually pointed for a top effort. Assuming trainers like Bob Baffert, Steve Asmussen or Todd Pletcher have plenty of maidens to choose from on big stakes weekends, expect them to go with their ‘pick of the litter’.

Second, even non-stakes races will include stakes runners looking to put their connections in the winner’s circle – even if it is only for an undercard event on a big day. This is the perfect setting for a stakes winner returning to action for two reasons: 1) it may be the only time when the track offers allowances or minor stakes without conditions and restrictions that would ordinarily keep a stakes winner from scaring everyone else off, and 2) it is also the ideal time for the trainer to show the owners that the horse is returning in top form. Bet the classiest animal and assume it did not enter to be embarrassed by lesser foes. That’s never a bad play.

This scenario played out twice on Florida Derby (G1) Day at Gulfstream Park last Saturday. Stakes runner Clearly Now shipped in from Oaklawn Park to run in an allowance race. This horse had plenty of opportunities to run in high class dirt sprints at Oaklawn, but the connections chose to ship to Hallandale for a big stakes day instead. Bet down from a 10/1 morning line, Clearly Now broke the track record for seven-furlongs in 1:20, paying $9.20. Later on the card, a Fairgrounds shipper named The Truth Or Else took an overnight stakes paying $16.40. Again, the horse passed over plenty of opportunities at the Fairgrounds in favor of shining on Florida's biggest racing day.

Another theme to keep in mind is that during these events, the tracks tend to play fast. Very fast.  As part of the effort to put their best foot forward, for better or worse, tracks often seem to get the running surface to play as quick as possible. This not only yields fast times (compounded by the above-average competition) but also leads to a speed-favoring surface. A track that normally plays fair will become speed biased, while a track that normally favors speed becomes an expressway. After a horse competes on one of these days, it is good to note for future reference that the way the horse ran may not be a true representation of its ability. Clearly Now is certainly talented, but taking down the seven-furlong track record at Gulfstream was obviously assisted by a lightning fast surface.

Requirements To Playing The Meet Within A Meet: 

– Treat a track’s ‘big event’ day, weekend, or even week as a high-class special event. 

– Favor high profile shippers from top connections even in maiden and allowance races.

– Assume local horses will only be competitive if they can exceed par.

– Handicap expecting early speed to dominate.

– Note horses that seemed to run the race of their lives on the big day and play against them next time.

– Note closers, and other horses that did not fare well on the big day without any obvious excuse, and expect better once they return under normal circumstances.

Be sure to check out Dean Arnold's handicapping book, A Bettor Way, on sale now through Amazon and Xlibris Publishing (www.xlibris.com/ABettorWay.html) and most major online book sellers.

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