Updated on 09/17/2011 8:55PM

Ignore trivia and admit Saint Liam stands out


ARCADIA, Calif. - For the biggest race of the winter meet, otherwise sane horseplayers might be persuaded by irrelevant trivia.

Because who really wants to spend hours poring over past performances for the $1 million Santa Anita Handicap on Saturday, only to arrive at the same conclusion as everyone else?

So rather than employ a traditional analysis that is based on condition, class, speed, and pace, some handicappers will wrap themselves up in incidental factors. And if it means crossing the line from creativity to recklessness, well, so what? Bettors can always fall back on the tiresome excuse that they at least considered "wagering value."

Problem is, not every race includes an overlay. Most of the time there is no value, because the wagering public typically prices the field just right. Depending on the local takeout rate, horses that start at 2-1 usually win about 28 percent of the time; horses that start at 3-1 typically win about 21 percent.

The lower the odds, the less likely the public has made a mistake. The combined wisdom of the betting market is tough to beat, and that so-called wisdom is based on condition, class, speed, and pace. Everything else is window dressing. Yet there is just enough chatter out there - speculation that Saint Liam is something other than a standout - that odds of 2-1 might be possible, even though he enters as the standout of the meet.

Saint Liam has never attempted 1 1/4 miles. Neither had previous Big Cap winners Southern Image (2004), Sir Beaufort (1993), Farma Way (1991), Ruhlmann (1990), or Martial Law (1989). Over the last 15 years, the combined 1 1/4-mile record of Big Cap winners, going in, was 11 for 30.

Saint Liam has not faced fast fractions such as those expected on Saturday from Truly a Judge. That is, except for the Grade 1 Woodward last fall, when Saint Liam smoked a half-mile in 45.60 seconds and six furlongs in 1:08.60. He ran Ghostzapper to a photo finish, and lost by a neck.

Saint Liam is shipping in, and East Coast shippers don't win the Big Cap. But that's not true, either. The last East Coast shipper in the Big Cap was 1987. Broad Brush was third in the Strub, went home to Maryland, and then shipped back. Broad Brush won the Big Cap at $16.40. Saint Liam would be the second consecutive shipper from the East to win.

Saint Liam drifts out, which sometimes forebodes physical problems. But the drift did not bother Saint Liam in the Donn, Clark, or Woodward. Those potential flaws are hollow fluff that does not matter. What does matter are concrete facts that concern condition, class, pace, and speed. Saint Liam has worked well since winning the Donn and, unlike the local runners, has missed no training due to inclement weather. He arrives in top condition.

What about class and speed? Saint Liam is the only Big Cap starter with a Grade 1 win against older horses. As handicapper Jim Quinn reminds, "Grade 1 races are won by Grade 1 horses." In this year's Big Cap lineup, there is only one.

Saint Liam has earned 114 Beyer Figures in two of his last three starts. It's close enough to the five-year Big Cap par of 118. None of the 10 Big Cap starters is even close. Does it mean that Saint Liam is a mortal lock? Of course not - there is no such thing. But there is only one sensible reason to wager against the standout. And that is price.

At some point Saturday, it is possible that logic will take hold and the betting public will hammer Saint Liam below fair value. But even that seems unlikely. With 11 runners in the field, there are alternatives that some may actually consider attractive.

The second choice on Daily Racing Form's line is Rock Hard Ten (5-2), who was up late to win a modest Strub Stakes last out. His trainer is Richard Mandella, who enters the Big Cap with two starters and an unusual record. Mandella also starts Congrats (12-1). If history follows suit, Congrats will finish in front of Rock Hard Ten.

Mandella has started multiple runners in seven Big Caps. Each time, horseplayers have gotten it wrong. A higher-odds runner has always finished in front of the lowest-odds runner. It happened in 1984; 1997 through 2000; 2002; and 2003. That includes Mandella's two Big Cap wins - Malek won at 5-1 in 1998, while Gentlemen finished last at 1-20. Siphon won at 5-1 in 1997; Gentlemen finished third at 8-5.

Based on that historical oddity, and a team workout Feb. 23 in which Congrats outfinished Rock Hard Ten, Congrats has a right to outrun expectations Saturday. One approach to the Big Cap may be to take a stand against both Rock Hard Ten and Imperialism, the one-two finishers in the unexceptional Strub.

Finally, there is the wild card in the Big Cap. Truly a Judge has only one chance to win - by seizing command from the gate, running his rivals into the ground with a display of intense speed, and somehow holding on.

It is an unlikely scenario. Because in the biggest race of the winter meet, the only logical conclusion is that the best horse will win - Saint Liam. Bettors can either take the short price, or pass the race.