Updated on 09/16/2011 7:52AM

How to hit the jackpot without handicapping


SARATOGA SPRINGS, N.Y. - Slowly but surely I'm getting the hang of the steeplechase game, which is to say, "They're off! You lose!"

Not counting the non-betting events during the open house program the Sunday before opening day, the first jump race of the meet is annually an entry-level allowance for older males. There is absolutely no need to waste precious time and mental energy bothering with the past performances. Just throw out the favorite and send it in with both hands on the longshots.

The first 'chase at the 1999 meet was won by Commanders Palace at $19.60. Sky and Sea set the pace and held second at 5-1. Evening Sun rallied from last to wind up third at 25-1. The 7-5 favorite was Apache Twist, and the official chart tells us he ". . . put in a good run along the inside and fell over the final jump."

That was a banner summer for the jumpers, by the way. A week later in the A.P. Smithwick Memorial Handicap, as burned chalkplayers surely remember, Brigade of Guards jumped poorly and left the course at 1-5.

On opening day 2000 the winner of the allowance 'chase was Flasher at $26.40, and he keyed a $658 trifecta over third choice Praise the Prince and fifth choice Bien Allure. Banjo Man, the 5-2 choice, ". . . was away sluggishly," and checked in fourth.

Last year they stopped scheduling the jump race on opening day, presumably to avoid discouraging the large crowd of more than 30,000. The infamous entry-level allowance was pushed back to the first race on the second day of the meet, always the least-attended program of the six weeks. The mare Feeling So Pretty somehow decided she would beat the boys in a blanket finish, and paid $38.40 as the second-longest shot on the board. The rank outsider at 26-1 was Dancewel, who nipped 5-2 favorite Cold Cat to complete a $603 exacta. The trifecta - in an eight-horse field, mind you - was worth a tidy $5,337.

You would think a horseplayer possessed of reasonably efficient deductive skills would learn from history. Not a chance, hurdle breath. Thursday's opener, if you haven't already guessed, was the famous first allowance over the jumps, and sure enough all hell broke loose. The winner was Trebizond, at $70.50 the longest shot on the board. It's so easy when you know how to play!

The impossible-to-figure Trebizond was followed under the wire by two more lightly-regarded runners. Cold Cat, who had lost his last six starts by the combined margin of 144 lengths (known as a "gross"), awoke to run second at odds of 12-1, and Valay Pass was third at 8-1. This year, the welcome-to-Saratoga tri was worth "only" $5,004.

And what of the favorite, you ask? This year's model at 75 cents on the dollar was the Jonathan Sheppard-trained Star Tide, who led to the backstretch the final time, where he stumbled and barely made it over the penultimate jump. At the final fence, the tiring Star Tide stumbled badly and unseated Blythe Miller, who eventually was able to walk off the course wearing a neck brace.

Other casualties from Thursday's thrilling exhibition included Major Hero, who stumbled over the spill, causing his rider to lose his irons; Chorale, who was vanned off after the finish; Boomtown, who left the course before the ninth fence; and Understood, who called it a day before the eighth fence.

Now that we've gotten these traditional festivities out of the way, another summer of thrills, chills, and spills at the Spa has officially begun! Next year, I promise not to handicap the first 'chase at all, and will merely box the three biggest prices in exactas, and the four biggest prices in trifectas.

Some more track biases of note

Having abandoned all hope of trying to apply logic to the 'chases, there is still the formidable task of trying to make sense of at least a small portion of the 330 or so flat races at Saratoga. Often it is an upstream swim, what with so many unfamiliar shippers targeting the rich purses.

In trying to place shippers' recent running lines in some kind of meaningful perspective, it helps to know whether any unusual conditions and/or biases were in play. Toward that goal, and by popular demand, here are the out-of-town entries from my At-A-Glance notebook during the past several weeks. They supplement the notations through June 23 that appear in DRF's Saratoga Players' Guide:

June 26Lone Star ParkAll four sprints won wire to wire
July 1CalderSix front-running winners from 10 dirt races
July 3Monmouth ParkInside paths preferred
July 5Hollywood ParkOutside paths preferred
July 7Delaware ParkSix of seven dirt races won wire to wire
July 8CalderInside speed had edge
July 9Delaware ParkEight of nine dirt winners first/second at 1st call
July 11Ellis ParkOutside paths preferred
July 12Ellis ParkOutside paths preferred
July 12CalderOutside closers and stalkers track
July 13Ellis ParkOutside paths preferred
July 13Delaware ParkFive of six dirt races won wire to wire
July 17Ellis ParkOutside paths preferred
July 17Arlington ParkOutside paths preferred
July 19Ellis ParkSpeed favoring
July 21Arlington ParkOutside paths preferred
July 21Monmouth ParkSix of seven dirt races won by early-pace types