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Good-weather track trends
While it has been ice cold in Northern climes, the 2007 racing season is warming up on cue in California and Florida.
On Saturday, the reigning Horse of the Year Invasor will make his 2007 debut in the $500,000 Donn Handicap, a day before the Chicago Bears meet the Indianapolis Colts in Miami in the Super Bowl.
At Gulfstream, the repositioned Swale Stakes for 3-year-olds at 6 1/2 furlongs also will be run on Donn Day, along with the one-mile Holy Bull, which will mark the return of highly ranked 3-year-old Nobiz Like Shobiz.
On the same afternoon in Southern California, 3-year-olds will race in the Sham Stakes at 1 1/8 miles as a supporting feature to the $300,000 Charles H. Strub Stakes. The Strub, named for Santa Anita's principal founder, is for 4-year-olds who might prove they belong in Santa Anita's $1 million Santa Anita Handicap on March 3. Likewise, on Sunday, more contenders for the Big Cap may emerge from the $300,000 San Antonio Handicap for 4-year-olds and up.
Beyond the stakes schedule at both tracks, there are enough races to review some basic trends that might be helpful in handicapping the best races on the schedule, and the cheapest, as well. Generally speaking, handicapping at these winter meets is inevitably rooted in the way specific jockeys and trainers - especially trainers - dedicate themselves to a solid start to the New Year. Each year, a handful of familiar names seem to pick up where they left off the year before or come to Gulfstream and Santa Anita with strong desire to get in the winner's circle.
The 2006 Eclipse Award-winning jockey Edgar Prado is the only Gulfstream-based rider winning at or near 25 percent. But the talented veterans Cornelio Velasquez, John Velazquez, J. J. Castellano, Kent Desormeaux, and Mark Guidry are performing at or near 20 percent in a very deep colony, which also includes Rafael Bejarano, Eddie Castro, and Joe Bravo, to name just a few of the nationally ranked pros on the scene.
Among the top trainers, Hall of Famer Billy Mott and Todd Pletcher's assistant Anthony Sciametta Jr. lead a long list of trainers who have been winning with at least 20 percent of their starters, including several low-profile horsemen who may provide more value at the mutuel windows.
For a few examples, Steve Margolis won with 5 of his first 15 starters, with a positive return on investment. Margolis scored all of his victories after laying low during Gulfstream's first week.
John Kimmel won 4 of his first 9 races, including going 3 for 5 after the first two weeks of the meet.
William White won with 4 of 11, with no wins during the first two weeks.
Rick Hiles also has been lying in the weeds since scoring with his third winner during the first 10 days of the season, while John Terranova II, who won his with first 2 starters, and Michael Pino, who won with 3 of his first 4, seem to be measuring their stock with careful precision.
The dirt sprints have been dominated by stalkers and near-the-pace types. The one-mile distance, which is around one turn, has produced more than its share of stretch-running winners.
The Gulfstream turf profile leans towards midpack closers and horses with the strongest last move, although speed types with proven local form have been just as formidable when able to control a realistic pace.
Santa Anita trends
Although jockey Garrett Gomez did not get the Eclipse Award for 2006, his early work in 2007 has been at the same high level he has maintained since the summer of 2005 when he became one of the most sought-after stakes jockeys in America. Versatile in the extreme, Gomez may be the strongest finisher in California, if not America. He has been hard for players to ignore, riding for trainers Doug O'Neill, Bob Baffert, and Todd Pletcher's assistant at Santa Anita, Michael McCarthy.
Victor Espinoza and transplanted New Yorker Richard Migliore also have been riding in great form. Espinoza and Migliore have been particularly effective riding horses trained by Julio Canani.
Migliore has adapted well to California racing, working horses regularly for Neil Drysdale and forming relationships that will pay off if he stays out West.
Beyond the familiar names listed above, Santa Anita horseplayers also should keep a few low-profile jockeys in mind. All are outperforming their previous statistics, in a jockey colony that needs new blood.
Gerry Olguin won three races at huge prices during a week that produced a pair of giant carryovers for which he was partly responsible.
Brice Blanc, known primarily as a stretch-running jockey for distance races on the turf, won a pair of sprints to suggest a possible breakthrough for this journeyman jockey, who has returned to Santa Anita after riding in Kentucky. Blanc began his career in Southern California a decade ago, riding for the late, great Charlie Whittingham and other highly ranked trainers who excelled on turf.
Corey Nakatani, one of the top turf riding jockeys in the country seemed to be spinning his wheels through the first few weeks, but suddenly came to life on Sunshine Millions Day. He has always been a streak-prone rider, so now would be a good time to upgrade many of his mounts.
Apprentice William Antongeorgi has shown more talent in this meet than in his first six months in the saddle, but he loses his apprentice weight allowance next weekend, so we shall see.
David Flores has developed a relationship with trainer Bobby Frankel, and Aaron Gryder has been in career form this meet.
Among the most effective trainers, Frankel has been winning at a 25 percent clip, while John Sadler continues to win with more than 20 percent of his starters, a trend he has maintained through every major Southern California meet for more than a year. Bob Baffert, always a force here, is in his familiar place, battling for the top spot in the standings.
Among the lower-profile trainers, Mike Puype, Peter Miller, and Frank J. Monteleone have each won three races from relatively few attempts.
As for track biases, dirt sprints have favored inside runners several times this meet, while the opposite has been true for turf sprints, which produced only one winner in 66 attempts from posts 1, 2, or 3 though Jan 25.
In routes on the main track, saving ground through the first turn has been a big plus, but there was no post position bias to make elimination of outside horses automatic.
In turf routes, however, the outside posts have presented evidence that will leave track profilers shaking their heads: In all, there were only 8 winners from a combined 89 horses who broke from posts 8 through 12, but 7 of those 8 winners won from the 17 starters who broke from post 10, leaving only one winner from 63 starters in posts 8, 11 and 12 combined!
By the way, I like Invasor to return in the pink at Gulfstream and I expect the Colts to win the Super Bowl, which may be no solace to football bettors when the Bears beat the spread. Imagine if horseplayers were required to pick not only the winner, but the margin of victory too. Ugh.