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The skinny on first-timers
The boutique meets at Del Mar and Saratoga offer something for handicappers of all disciplines. But for value handicappers, the money is often with the babies, especially first-time starters.
Searching for future stars? Look no further than Del Mar. Three of the last five Breeders' Cup Juvenile winners (Stevie Wonderboy, Action This Day, and Vindication) ran in 2-year-old races there. Sweet Catomine raced twice at the seaside locale en route to her win in the 2004 Breeders' Cup Juvenile Fillies. Halfbridled, the 2003 BreedersO Cup Juvenile Fillies heroine, won her debut at 7-2 odds before taking the Grade 1 Del Mar Debutante.
Despite being a household name, trainer Bob Baffert often has juvenile debut runners get overlooked at Santa Anita and Hollywood. Over the past three years, Baffert is 11 for 56 (20 percent winners) with a $3.68 return on investment at those two tracks. During the same time period at Del Mar, his juvenile debut performers are 7 for 42 (17 percent), with a $1.35 ROI. Baffert's babies are well meant at Del Mar, but the whole world seems to know about them. He likes to prep his firsters with several five-furlong workouts before they race. Six of the seven Del Mar debut winners wore blinkers so don't be put off if a Baffert firster shows up in the paddock wearing the "rogue's badge." Baffert already has five debut winners in 2007, and his firsters should be live at Del Mar again. (All 2007 statistics are through July 4.)
Doug O'Neill is one of the leading trainers year-round in Southern California, and his debut juveniles deserve extra attention at Del Mar. Over the past three Del Mar meets, O'Neill's first-out babies are 5 for 38 (13 percent), with a $1.32 ROI. O'Neill places his runners where they can succeed. Three of the five winners debuted in maiden claiming races.
O'Neill also excels with statebreds. He saddled three Cal-bred juvenile debut winners during this time period, all at 3-1 or more. O'Neill usually preps his young horses with four-furlong drills, and he'll sometimes sprinkle in a gate work on top of a race. They often work quickly, and it isn't uncommon for an O'Neill firster to show at least one bullet workout. O'Neill has already sent out three juvenile debut winners in 2007. Two of them ran in maiden claimers while the other started in a statebred maiden special weight.
Neil Drysdale did not have a 2-year-old starter at last summer's Del Mar meet, but the conservative trainer bears watching nonetheless. During the 2004 and 2005 Del Mar campaigns, Drysdale sent out three debut winners from six starters (50 percent) for a $2.83 ROI. Drysdale unleashes his good 2-year-olds late in the meet, and he usually eschews sprint races. Two of the three winners started at a mile, with one racing on the turf. It is interesting to note that none of Drysdale's first-out baby winners started with Lasix. Don't be surprised if a Drysdale firster shows workouts of six furlongs or longer prior. He already has a pair of older first-out winners this year.
Wesley Ward has moved most of his string to south Florida for the summer, but he had a couple of winners at the Hollywood meet, and his first-out numbers at Del Mar over the past three years are sensational. He is 4 for 11 (36 percent), with a $2.65 ROI with debuting babies, and three of those winners came in races restricted to California-breds. Ward has already had a monster year with firsters. He has sent out nine debut winners this year, eight of them 2-year-olds. Simulcast players watching for his babies at Calder this summer should pounce if he surfaces at Del Mar with a Cal-bred firster.
Craig Dollase and Christopher Paasch also should receive special consideration when they start a young horse at Del Mar. Dollase's two debut winners over the past three seasons (2 for 6, $6.47 ROI) occurred later in the meet as they prepped for the Barretts Debutante at Fairplex. Both of Paasch's debut winners (2 for 3, $6.53 ROI) came early in the meet in 5 1/2-furlong maiden special weight races for owner Charles Cono. Also, watch out for Molly Pearson (2 for 6, $2.90 ROI over the past three Del Mar meets) and Clifford Sise Jr. (2 for 12, $2.12).
Pedigree fans looking for an edge in Cal-bred races should watch for the progeny of Valid Wager (five debut winners this year), Beau Genius (four debut winners and the broodmare sire of six others), Lord Carson (four), Benchmark (three juvenile debut winners), Swiss Yodeler (three debut winners), In Excess (three), Unusual Heat (three), Roar (three), Game Plan (three), and Western Fame (three).
Of the last five winners of the Breeders' Cup Juvenile Fillies, two raced at Saratoga. Storm Flag Flying (2002) won her debut at the Spa on her way to a perfect season and year-end championship honors. Folklore raced twice at Saratoga before winning the 2005 Juvenile Fillies.
Any reasonable discussion of the baby races at Saratoga has to begin with trainer Todd Pletcher. Armed with only the strongest pedigrees, Pletcher has saddled 16 juvenile debut winners at Saratoga over the last three seasons. He and go-to rider John Velazquez teamed for 15 of those winners (Garrett Gomez rode the other), and all 16 raced with Lasix.
The Pletcher barn is easy to figure -- they're all live. Six of his Saratoga winners came in turf routes. Two were statebreds. With an ROI hovering around the $2 mark, Pletcher's firsters are almost automatic plays at Saratoga. This year, Pletcher has kept up his torrid pace with 13 debut winners. Nine of those winners were 2-year-olds, and all raced with Lasix.
A common misconception among handicappers is that Nick Zito-trained babies need a race before giving a winning effort. The numbers disprove that theory. Over the past three years at Saratoga, Zito is 9 for 45 (20 percent), with a $2.84 ROI for juvenile first-time starters. All of Zito's debut winners raced with Lasix in sprint races. This year, Zito sent out two older debut winners at Gulfstream. Both went off at over 8-1 odds. The bottom line is that Zito's firsters are often very good value plays.
Steve Asmussen is arguably the best first-out trainer in the world. Over the last three years, his juvenile debut runners are 67 for 352 (19 percent), with a $1.80 ROI. At Saratoga during that time period, Asmussen's record with 2-year-old firsters is 5 for 18, with a $1.80 ROI. While Asmussen was on the shelf during last year's Saratoga meet due to suspension, his assistant, Scott Blasi, stepped in admirably. Blasi went 2 for 9, with a $2.71 ROI with 2-year-old debuts. Asmussen has shown a history of sending out his most precocious firsters early in the Saratoga meet. Asmussen has already sent out 22 debut winners in 2007 and is sure to add to that number at the Spa. He specializes in sprint races, however. Asmussen is 0 for 16 over the past three years with juvenile firsters in route races.
Richard Violette Jr. doesn't get the credit he deserves with young horses. Over the last three Saratoga meets, Violette is 5 for 29 (17 percent), with a $1.57 ROI with juvenile firsters. Both of Violette's winners last meet were in statebred maiden special weight sprints with Garrett Gomez aboard. Violette does well with New York-bred runners and often teams up with Klaravich Stables for live juveniles. The owner-trainer combination sent out a juvenile debut winner at the Belmont spring meet. Violette likes to punctuate a horse's work tab with a half-mile move, sometimes from the gate.
One trainer who definitely points for the Saratoga meet is Dominic Galluscio. Over the last three years, Galluscio is 3 for 14, with a $3.88 ROI with juvenile firsters at Saratoga. At all other tracks during that time period, he is 0 for 29 in that category. Two of the three Spa winners came in statebred maiden special weight sprints (the other in a maiden claiming sprint), and one, Don't Mind Me, won at 18-1 in a turf sprint. Galluscio doesn't seem to push his young horses too hard in the mornings. He seems to favor three- and four-furlong breezes instead of longer works. This year, Galluscio has sent out a pair of older debut winners.
Other trainers to watch at the Spa include Graham Motion (2 for 6, $5 ROI over the last three Saratoga meets, excellent on turf), Stanley Hough (2 for 12, $2.12 ROI), and Richard Dutrow Jr. (3 for 11, $2.26 ROI).
First-crop stallion Hook and Ladder may be the breakthrough statebred sire at this year's Saratoga meet. A fleet son of Dixieland Band, Hook and Ladder won the Grade 2 Gulfstream Park Breeders' Cup Sprint Handicap at seven furlongs and is already the sire of three debut winners.