08/02/2012 2:11PM

King: Taking a stand against the big names on West Virginia Derby undercard

Dustin Orona Photography
Ravalo looks set for a big effort in Saturday's Sen. Robert C. Byrd Memorial.

In determining the pecking order of importance in handicapping, a horse’s connections are to be considered, but not to the point that it overshadows the most important piece of the puzzle: the horse.

Yet the betting public can, at times, do just that, making a mediocre horse ridden by the leading jockey the favorite, or one trained by a hot trainer a shorter price than it should be because their names leap out of the past performances.

This trend is even more noticeable on major racing days at smaller tracks, when prominent trainers and jockeys are in competition against track regulars that rarely share the stage with such individuals.

This can lead to value on backing quality horses starting for winning locals or out-of-towners that just aren’t national names.

That’s precisely the strategy this horseplayer will employ in betting the races Saturday at Mountaineer Park on West Virginia Derby Day.

Although I couldn’t find a West Virginia Derby horse I liked as a play, four horses running in supporting stakes caught my eye as potentially rewarding betting opportunities. In race order, these include:

◗ West Virginia Senate President’s Cup, race 5: Frontside (No. 4, 5-1 odds)

A 4-year-old War Front filly, Frontside has two wins and two seconds in four starts this year, a record that includes a recent front-running victory in stakes company at Indiana Downs. She’s consistently fast, too, regularly running Beyer Speed Figures in the mid-80s.

Trainer Eduardo Caramori and jockey Leandro Goncalves – respectively winning at a 26 percent and 21 percent rate on the year – are capably in her corner, but neither is going to garner mutuel recognition on name recognition.

[WEST VIRGINIA DERBY: Get PPs and watch Saturday’s full card live]

Instead, it will be big names like jockey Mike Smith on Artemus Kitten, riding for Mike Maker, and Corey Nakatani, aboard for Todd Pletcher on Counterparty, that draw the support of connection-seeking bettors.

◗ Sen. Robert C. Byrd Memorial, race 6: Ravalo (No. 6, 7-2)

Similarly Ravalo looks to go off at an overlaid price for the same reason. Well managed throughout his career, he has won 17 races and more than $1.27 million – and yet he’s not the favorite, presumably because Donald Barr is his trainer and Mike Luzzi his jockey.

Luzzi’s a capable New York rider, and Barr is having his usual fine year, winning at a 21 percent clip, but they aren’t known the same way three-time Kentucky Derby-winning jockey Calvin Borel – who is on 5-2 shot Will’s Wildcat – is.

All signs point to Ravalo being ready for a smasher, having just run second in a prep at Presque Isle Downs and now returning to Mountaineer, where he once ran a 104 Beyer and where he has a record of four wins, two seconds, and a third from seven starts. He also races his best distance of six furlongs.

◗ West Virginia Governor’s, race 7: Seruni (No. 5, 9-2)

As soon as one opens the past performances for race 7, the West Virginia Governor’s, the national names hit you: Nakatani and trainer Steve Asmussen with Tapizar; Colizeo from the Pletcher barn; Parody for the winningest owners in the country, Midwest Thoroughbreds; and Headache for Smith and Maker.

So it should come as little surprise that Seruni, trained by Phil Oliver and ridden by Jon Court, might slip through the wagering cracks. On accomplishments, he shouldn’t, though. He has been first or second in four straight races while running Beyers in the mid-90s, and though his recent form has come on grass, he is a two-time winner on dirt, including over a wet Mountaineer track last year.

His versatility, consistency, and tactical speed make him the most likely winner of this race – and at a square price.

◗ West Virginia House of Delegates Speaker’s Cup, race 9: El Commodore (No. 9, 3-1)

Although El Commodore was made a narrow favorite on the morning line for the nightcap, the West Virginia House of Delegates, there are three to four horses that should take action, and it would not be a surprise to see El Commodore go off higher than his 3-1 morning-line price.

He’s the class of the race, having made three of six starts in Grade 3 stakes this year and coming close to winning a couple of those, most recently when second, beaten a half-length by Get Serious in the Red Bank at Monmouth.

But no one is going to be lining up to bet him because of his jockey is Daniel Centeno, even though he has won 103 races this year. And that’s good news for his El Commodore’s backers.

Centeno is a jockey with a winning history on El Commodore, and his trips to the winner’s circle this year, accomplished largely at “B” level tracks like Tampa and Delaware Park, exceeds the combined victories of Derby-winning jockeys Borel (51) and Smith (38) – who are on Strike Impact and Major Marvel, respectively.