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Updated on 09/18/2011 1:31AM
Seven weeks to figure it out
Horseplayers plotting their summer wagering strategy can identify with an old Yogi Berra baseball cliche. The game, he said, is "90 percent mental, the other half is physical."
The malapropism can be applied to handicapping at Del Mar, the Southern California resort where much of the year's best racing for 2-year-olds and grass runners takes place just furlongs from the Pacific Ocean. The horses still do most of the work, but a successful season for bettors is "90 percent mental."
Want to win at Del Mar? A successful handicapping attitude includes discipline, objectivity, creativity, condemnation of bad favorites, and the ability to discount incidental factors.
It might sound clever to discuss post position, jockey changes, or the effect of ocean tide on track bias. But relative to the fundamentals of handicapping, those considerations are simply not that important.
The truth is, one cannot find the right horses or make the right bets without addressing condition, class, speed, and pace. Most everything else is window dressing, even at Del Mar. Here, a winning season requires sufficient inventory between your ears and in your wallet. Lose your senses or your bankroll, and it will be a short summer indeed.
Sometimes, winning at Del Mar merely requires avoiding insanity. So how do you stay sane for seven weeks? By spending Tuesdays (the only dark day) relaxing on the beach. The other six days - Wednesdays through Mondays at the track - necessitate common sense and picking the right time to swing for the fences and the right time to play safe.
Want to hit a juicy pick four? The median $1 payoff last season was $675, but the median pick four on Thursdays, the weakest card of the week, was only $520. One reason is shallow and uncompetitive races. The bottom of the barrel at Del Mar is $25,000 maiden claiming, a predictable class level that has become an unfortunate weekday staple.
Favorites won 43 percent (14 of 32) of $25,000 maiden claiming races last summer, and the dominance of the chalk depressed payoffs on consecutive-race wagers. Barring a change in the racing menu, Thursday may not be the day to strike it rich.
Form reversals at Del Mar are less frequent than perceived. The overall win rate of favorites last summer was more than 37 percent, and only 13.7 percent (51 of 371) of the winners returned $20 or more, including nine opening week.
The upset winners who do land come in many forms, and especially on grass. More than 22 percent of turf race winners last season paid $20 or higher. Fewer upsets occurred on dirt: Only 11 percent reached $20, and favorites dominated dirt routes by winning at a 42 percent clip. Bettors expecting form reversals based on a switch from Hollywood dirt to Del Mar dirt may be frustrated.
The Del Mar turf was replaced last year, and the new 2005 course produced wickedly fast times. Three records were set: Whata Soldier raced five furlongs in 55.00 seconds Aug. 5; Cheroot went 1 1/16 miles in 1:39.68 on Aug. 19, and Three Valleys raced a mile in 1:32.21 on Sept. 4.
The new grass course played fairly, but it also could carry speed and was kind to stretch-outs. Upset winners Lady's Champagne ($46 on Aug. 13), Madre May ($39.20 on Aug. 22), Push to the Top ($38.40 on Aug. 8), Swing the Cat ($41.20 on Aug. 14), and Nonino ($36.40 on Aug. 24) were all sprint to route.
Fresher is better
Any study of current condition reveals Del Mar is dominated by fresh horses. The high Del Mar purses (15 to 20 percent higher than Hollywood) and corresponding social benefits - everyone wants to party and win at Del Mar - mean that many horsemen still point toward the summer meet. The intent shows up in the number of debut/comeback winners.
No fewer than 104 of the 371 races (28 percent) last summer were won by a first-time starter or a horse returning from a layoff of 45 days or more. Another 88 races were won in the second start of a form cycle (second time out, or second start back). Together, it totals a whopping 192 of the 371 races - more than half the Del Mar races last year were won by a fresh horse making the first or second start of a career or comeback.
But there is an evil flip side to the fresh-horse angle. Late in the seven-week meet, the temptation is to squeeze in one more start before the end of the season. Sometimes it is a worn-out horse making a third start in less than seven weeks. It creates a classic bet-against situation - exploiting a vulnerable low-odds runner.
Horses making their third start at Del Mar are typically undervalued. Make no mistake - they do win. The final two weeks last summer, there were 17 winners from 173 horses making their third start. But the payoffs are minimal - the final two weeks last summer third-start-or-more runners generated a paltry $1.22 return for each $2 win bet.
Favorites making their third start of the meet during the final two weeks won 5 of 21 starts (23 percent), for a low return on investment of $1.40. At 9-1 or lower, the win percentage fell to less than 8 percent and an equally low return of $1.48.
For bettors, it means the risk is high and potential reward is low to back a low-odds horse who has already made two starts during the short, competitive meet. By end of the season, some horses are just plain tuckered out, no matter how good they may look on paper.
So how do you know if a Del Mar layoff horse (45 days or more) is ready?
By proven class and trust in the trainer. Jeff Mullins and Bob Baffert ranked 1-2 in the 2005 Del Mar trainer standings, and also were 1-2 in number of layoff winners. Mullins had six layoff winners from 23 altogether. Baffert also had six layoff winners, from 22 total.
A common thread with layoff winners is established ability at the class level. Del Mar is expensive for the Los Angeles-area stables that pick up and relocate their staffs for seven weeks each summer. Racing opportunities at the short meet are at a premium; horsemen absorbing the cost of running a layoff horse at Del Mar tend to make sure the horse is well spotted by racing the horse at, or below, his or her previous competitive level.
Maidens have their angles
Fresh horses include 2-year-old maidens, who make up 15 percent of the Del Mar racing program. Handicapping 2-year-old maidens at Del Mar is not that tough. Special-weight winners predictably come from one of three categories: (1) experienced horses who have matched the speed-figure par, (2) improved second-time starters, and (3) fast-working rookies who are well bet. Nine of the 12 debut winners last year returned $8.40 or less; $29.20 was the high payoff. All worked quickly (for example, a half-mile in 47 seconds and change or five-eighths in 59 and change).
Another 12 races for juvenile special-weights were won by second-time starters, many who had earned a low speed figure first out. It is not necessarily a knock. Maiden 2-year-olds are always eligible for radical improvement. But to accept a short price, Beyer Speed Figures provide a guideline. For 2-year-old colts, the special-weight par Beyer figure the past two years is 81. The Beyer par for colts in California-bred or high maiden-claiming races ($62,500 to $100,000) is 75.
For 2-year-old maiden fillies, special-weight Beyer par the past two years is 76. For fillies in California-bred or high maiden-claiming, par is 64. A horse who has run within five points of par can be considered a contender.
A longshot exception is 2-year-old races at two turns. The 2006 meet's three highest special-weight payoffs were second-time starters going sprint to route. They were Madre May ($39.20 on Aug. 22), Nonino ($36.40 on Aug. 24), and Sacred Light ($46.80 on Aug. 25).
Juvenile maiden-claimers are a different story, and expectations must be lowered. While firsters won 40 percent of special-weights, only 20 percent of maiden-claiming races for 2-year-olds were won by rookies. The ones who did win (except $97.80 Sexy Operator on July 27) worked well and were bet accordingly - $12.40 was the high payoff.
Class-droppers won one-fourth of 2-year-old maiden claiming races last summer. Half the races were won by second- or third-time starters. It does not take much ability for a 2-year-old to win a low-level maiden claimer at Del Mar. The median Beyer par for $32,000 maiden-claiming colts the past two years is 58; for fillies it is 56. Be careful using pars in juvenile maiden-claiming races - a little early speed goes a long way.
Speed figures are useful as an elimination tool for older horses, particularly in sprints. A horse "fits" if he runs within five points of par. Here, class is speed. Greg's Gold proved it in the Grade 1, six-furlong Bing Crosby last year. His previous start, Greg's Gold won a first-level allowance with a 108 Beyer (Bing Crosby par is 112). Though moved up in class from N1X to Grade 1, Greg's Gold ran to his figure and won the Bing Crosby at $19.
The list below includes Beyer pars in Del Mar sprints for older males.
Older male winners, dirt sprints
Older male maidens, dirt sprints
Speed still rules
As far as running style, the main track at Del Mar plays fairly, with no conspicuous difference from Hollywood or Santa Anita. The universal bias to speed applies. Want to cash a bet in a Southern California dirt sprint? Most of the time, it's a good idea to back a horse with gas. Speed wins races, at all distances. At the most frequently used distance of six furlongs, 75 percent of the races were won by a horse who was within three lengths of the leader after the opening quarter-mile.
The proximity to the ocean may be one reason why the Del Mar main track can be prone to bias, tending to favor inside speed. The reputation of Del Mar as a rally-wide track has no basis in recent fact.
Post positions last season were impartial on the main track - it is acceptable to back a sprinter from the rail (10 for 94 at six furlongs). At a mile on dirt, inside posts (1 through 4) produced a win rate three times higher than posts 8 through 10. This revelation is not groundbreaking. Common-sense trip handicapping goes a long way, at Del Mar and everywhere.
On turf, the extreme outside posts (9 and 10) at one mile produced a surprising 5 winners last year from 31 starters. Consider it an anomaly. Typically in mile turf races at Del Mar, horses who draw the outside are as good as dead. At a mile on turf from 2001 through 2004, posts 9 through 10 won just three races from 89 starters.
Del Mar runs about two turf sprints per week, at five furlongs, and form prevails. The win rate of favorites the past three years is above normal at 38 percent. Inside posts dominate. On a percentage basis, posts 1 through 5 win at twice the rate (15 percent) as posts 6 and out (7 percent). Bettors must respect the chalk, and lean to inside posts.
Europeans have lost luster
Barring surprise for 2006, one handicapping angle has just about worn out. Del Mar once was a magnet for European shippers who consistently outran their odds and produced steady profits. From 1987 through 2002, European shippers in Del Mar turf routes won nearly 20 percent, and produced a lofty return on investment of $2.76.
But only 10 European shippers made their U.S. debut in a Del Mar turf route last summer, and Art Moderne ($4) was the only winner. In 2004, the Euro angle went 2 for 14 for a flat-bet loss; in 2003, Euros won 3 of 20 and broke even. Overall the past three years, the Euro-trend is 6 for 44 for a loss of 73 cents for each $2 wager (a $1.27 return on investment).
Nevertheless, the angle remains theoretically sound: New faces do get overlooked. Last year in the Del Mar Derby, Euro-shipper Tedo finished second at 13-1. When a new shooter shows up at a big price, take a close look. Last summer, they were undervalued - six of the 10 shippers started at 5-1 or lower. Still, one never knows when opportunity will strike. Perhaps a longshot European will slip into the Del Mar entries this summer.
Pick fours, sixes offer different opportunities
The Del Mar wagering menu is unchanged - rolling pick threes, a pick four, and the ballyhooed $2 pick six, which accounts for 4 percent of total handle at Del Mar and creates the ultimate marketing tool: the carryover. The pick six carried over six times last season, with carryovers ranging from $111,414 to a double roll of $648,442. On carryover days, the Del Mar pick six attracts four to six times the amount of the carryover, effectively reducing takeout to 0 percent (the amount paid to winning bettors approximates the amount wagered).
While the pick six is never easy, carryovers allow a chance to wager at (theoretically) zero tax. All you have to be is a better handicapper than most everyone else. That is easy, right? The median payoff last year was $23,662; payoffs ranged from $741 to $515,224.
The $1 pick four is basically a pick six for small guys, and it makes sense for most bettors. Whereas a season-long attack on the pick six requires a five-figure bankroll, it takes less capital to battle the pick four. The pick four out-handled the pick six during the 2005 meet, ($16.9 million to $16.5 million) and produced a median payoff of $675.70.
The Del Mar pick four covers the last four races of the day, and last season generated payoffs ranging from $74 to a high of $10,945. The $1 pick four paid more than $10,000 four times during the meet (July 27, Aug. 10, and Sept. 3 and 7).
There are other factors to consider at Del Mar, including the horse-for-course angle and the weekly Tuesday dilemma - at which local beach to spend the afternoon?
For bettors that begin opening day July 19 with a modest degree of sanity and ample wagering capital, perhaps only one question remains. Will either one remain on closing day, Sept. 6?