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Trainers: Brad Free's Top 25
Want to make money betting Barry Abrams at Del Mar? It's simple. Just back his Unusual Heat offspring on the main track. Abrams averaged three main-track wins in each of the past five Del Mar summers; his 16-for-122 record included 12 sired by Unusual Heat that generated a flat-bet return of more than $3 for each $2 bet. Abrams won twice last year with 2-year-old firsters by Unusual Heat - Brushburn ($15.40) in a maiden $100K and Mensa Heat ($14.40) in a maiden $62.5K. Abrams is forever linked to the California sire Unusual Heat, whom he claimed him for $80K and developed into a top stallion. Unusual Heat offspring are honest, durable, and always finish. It's been that way for nearly eight years, since Abrams's first Unusual Heat winner at Del Mar - the $51.60 first-time starter Frankie Eyelashes on Aug. 3, 2001. Looking for a bet-against? Abrams's five-year win rate on the Del Mar turf is only 8 percent (10 for 123) at a flat-bet loss.
Three summers of declining totals have made Bob Baffert a bet-against at Del Mar. Or has it? In fact, the latest Hall of Fame trainer inductee has won at a decent 16 percent on Polytrack despite losing a chunk of his stable during the first synthetic meet in 2007 when a key owner pulled his stock from California. Baffert's synthetic record is acceptable even if his stock is overbet. At odds of 2-1 or less on Poly, he has won only 9 percent; the previous three summers on dirt he won at 50 percent (34 for 67) in the category. Most Baffert victories at Del Mar are with maidens; the closing-day win by Midshipman in the 2008 Del Mar Futurity was Baffert's first Del Mar graded stakes since 2006. The drought was unusual, because Baffert is the track's all-time stakes leader (79). His 2-year-olds for 2009 are more likely to start late in the meet. Those that do start may be undervalued even if Baffert is 4 or 17 on Polytrack with debut 2-year-olds.
Will the real Rafael Becerra please stand up? Following a huge 2007 summer during which he went 8 for 32, Becerra tanked in 2008. He started the Del Mar meet 1 for 24, did not win his second race until the sixth week of the meet, and ended 5 for 47. It was a down season for one of the circuit's top horsemen. However, these are times of downsize. Becerra buys much of his stock through the claiming ranks, but the first five months this year he claimed only two horses. Like other trainers in a tough business climate, he faces the economic challenge of procuring fresh horses while owners scale back. A typical Becerra contender is a claimer or Cal-bred; his droppers are aggressively spotted and well meant. The first Polytrack meet for Becerra in 2007 was a hit; 2008 was a bomb. The expectation for 2009 is Becerra to rebound with about four wins from about two dozen starters as he squeezes all he can from dwindling resources.
Notwithstanding his reputation as racetrack jester, Julio Canani in fact remains one of the top-producing trainers in California and is always loaded for summer. Canani runners do get hammered by bettors; one-fourth of his 212 Del Mar starters the past five years were favored. But the chalk delivered at a solid 34 percent rate. The two seasons since Del Mar went to Polytrack, Canani has remained a predictable force by winning with 8 of 17 favorites (both surfaces combined). And despite being recognizable, Canani managed to slip in longshot winners the first two seasons on synthetic. They were turf-to-Poly dropper Wake Up Maggie ($33.40) in 2008, and front-running sprinter Forestry's Fire ($57.60) in 2007. Canani is non-categorical. His success at Del Mar ranges from 2-year-old fillies such as champion Sweet Catomine, to Grade 1 turf winners such as Amorama and Special Ring. Layoff horses at Del Mar are ready, shippers are well-spotted, and Canani should average about a win a week.
Jack Carava re-emerged as a Del Mar force the last two summers, and figures a factor again in 2009. Carava is private trainer for La Canada Stables owner Ron Valenta; the operation won 16 races (15 were claiming-caliber) the past two Del Mar summers. Carava won three last year with maiden droppers. Two were maiden-25s hitting bottom; Cool Haleigh ($45) moved from special-weight to maiden $62.5K. Carava runs them where they belong, and aggressively drops when necessary. He is most effective first, second, and third start following a claim and takes an occasional shot like 2006 when in-form Pure as Gold ($48.20) won the Grade 1 Bing Crosby for Carava and Valenta first start off the $100K claim. Carava was on a roll during winter at Santa Anita where he is based, then cooled off early at Hollywood. The stable might be freshening for Del Mar, where Carava will average more than a starter a day and about a winner a week.
An established top-10 trainer in Southern California, Cerin has always been a longshot bettor's delight. That has not changed in two years since Del Mar went to Polytrack. Cerin was just 4 for 35 on Polytrack last summer, but second-start maiden Tiger Blitz ($59) and fresh-horse Accopela Choir ($25.60) helped produced a profitable return of $2.98 for each $2 win bet. The first year of Polytrack was even better; Cerin was 8 for 31 in 2007 and fortunate when Student Council landed in his lap days before his upset in the Pacific Classic. Cerin starters do not always run two alike, and poor races can be forgiven, within reason. Horses making their second start of the meet win nearly double the rate of first start of the meet (22 percent vs. 13 percent) at a big flat-bet profit. Cerin has not won a turf race at Del Mar since 2006, and enters this summer on an 18-race skid with turf starters. That shouldn't scare bettors away from a Cerin longshot on grass.
Neil Drysdale has been quiet at Del Mar, winning five races from his last 54 starters the last two seasons with a high win payoff just $8.60. Interestingly, Drysdale still wins when he is supposed to. With Del Mar favorites the past five years he as won 14 of 35 (40 percent), a rate that towers over his 9 percent (9 for 108) recent record with non-favorites. Most Drysdale winners are grass; he has won only two main-track races since 2005. Bettors should not be slaves to statistics, however. The biggest Drysdale moment last summer was when he wheeled back Model 12 days after a troubled-trip allowance victory; Model gave Zenyatta a scare in the Grade 2 Clement Hirsch and lost by a length at odds of 29-1. Well-meant maidens typically show up hot in the betting, and as of early June, the Drysdale stakes lineup included U S Ranger, Mrs. Kipling, Liberian Freighter and Artiste Royal.
Ron Ellis is based at Hollywood Park, and he points the stable to that track's spring and fall meets. As long as Hollywood stays open, Del Mar is second fiddle. The past three years, Ellis has won just eight races at Del Mar and would have blanked last season but for an unexpected debut victory by 2-year-old Believe in Hope ($28.40). Ellis is patient, and coming off an active Hollywood. It means Del Mar might be a freshening period for the stable. From a year-round perspective, Ellis consistently clicks at 20 percent; his winners the past five years produced almost break-even ROI ($1.97 through May). Barring an unexpected development, Ellis is likely to be a minor player in summer and a big player in fall. The most recent summer at which Ellis turned heads was 2005, when he was 9 for 19, including four winners that were first- or second-off-the-claim.
Pete Eurton trainees offer the best of both worlds - wagering value and win rate. Over the past 2 1/2 years in California (through May) Eurton has won at 16 percent, during which time his runners have produced a $2.27 ROI. Claiming stock is the bread and butter for Eurton, but he also can manage a good horse such as the allowance sprinters She's Cheeky and Euroglide. Although Eurton is only 4 for 36 over the past two Del Mars, he sprang upsets each season. Eurton scored last summer with Gold Star Status ($49), first off a trainer change and dropping to maiden-25. In 2007 he won a non-graded turf stakes with surface-switcher Masterpiece ($30.20). Beware maiden claimers at Del Mar. Eurton won three last summer and is 6 for 20 the past five years with maiden claimers. They generated huge profit thanks to Gold Star Status and 2004 first-time starter Run Thruthe Sun ($57.60).
Bobby Frankel did not win a race at Del Mar last summer; he begins summer 2009 on a 0-for-25 Del Mar drought reaching back to Sept. 1, 2007. Frankel is the fourth-leading Del Mar trainer all time (348 wins), fourth in stakes (70), and trains too many good horses to turn his back on the attractive West Coast stakes program. Frankel usually focuses on Kentucky/New York in spring and summer; his Del Mar roster last year was soft, nine of his 21 starters were maidens. If last season was a mere aberration, Frankel should be better-stocked this summer. Most seasons at Del Mar, he averages close to 10 wins a meet. Although he starts twice as many on turf as the main track, synthetic-surface success of Ventura, Jibboom and Mast Track mean Frankel could beef up his synthetic stats. Frankel remains a bet-against with older maidens at Del Mar. Their long-term win rate is 15 percent, but they return only $1 per $2 wagered.
Year-old statistics suggest Carla Gaines had a successful 2008 Del Mar, where she won 8 of 30. But statistics mislead. Gaines said her stable at Del Mar was hard-hit by injury, otherwise summer 2008 might have been a breakout season. Behind-the-scenes worries are only minor for handicappers who recognize Gaines as one of the top trainers on the circuit and a Del Mar force with whatever she starts. Nearly half her wins at Del Mar are in maiden races, a category that remains the best place to look for a square price on a Gaines starter. Once more effective second time out, Gaines first-time starters are increasingly live. The past five years she is 5 for 23 first out, and 4 for 17 with second-start maidens. Both groups produce a flat-bet profit, while Gaines allowance and stakes runners usually are under-valued. Based on win percent and ROI, Gaines is better on the main track than turf.
Spring 2-year-olds sired by Swiss Yodeler are Mike Harrington's specialty; his best months are May and June on the fast surface at Hollywood Park. But the precocious nature of Swiss Yodeler offspring does not translate to success on Polytrack at Del Mar. The past few summers, Harrington has slipped from terrific Del Mar longshot trainer, to average trainer who starts a few horses and wins at less than 10 percent. But maybe Harrington is coming back around. He went 4 for 23 last summer at Del Mar, three Swiss Yodelers won on Poly, and Dusty Trail scored a $50.60 upset in a California-bred allowance on turf. Harrington might be a force this summer at Del Mar; he believes his 2009 group of 2-year-olds are considerably stronger than 2008. Because of close ties to California stallion Swiss Yodeler, it comes as no surprise that a category in which he often excels is races restricted to statebreds.
Eoin Harty will be active at the big summer meets; he splits his stable between Polytrack at Del Mar, and dirt at Saratoga. A 2008 upset by allowance comebacker Weekend Escape ($49.20) assured Harty a flat-bet profit for Del Mar ($3.36 ROI) and erased the 0-for-15 fiasco of 2007. However, last summer after starting the meet 4 for 7, Harty lost with his final 19 starters. Harty has a high-class stable comprised mostly of expensive and well-bred stock geared toward main-track racing; the past five years Harty is just 1 for 22 on the Del Mar turf. His main-track numbers are only moderate from a wagering perspective. Harty is 4 for 36 on Polytrack; he was 5 for 36 on dirt the three preceding summers. One category that contrarians will appreciate is 2-year-olds. Harty has not won with a Del Mar 2-year-old at any class level since 2004; the losing streak has reached 33 starters.
How do you make money betting on Bruce Headley runners? You don't. One of the all-time great California trainers, Headley, 75, still wins races. The problem is his fast-working style attracts attention and his runners routinely are overbet. The past five summers, Headley runners produced a $1.41 ROI at Del Mar. A rebuilding phase was necessary after a split with Jess Jackson; Headley this year has been re-established as a force. Following a good 12-for-65 winter at Santa Anita, he started big at Hollywood, then planned to back off and point for Del Mar with a fresh stable. Older maidens and allowance runners are a Del Mar specialty; from that group Headley will try finding a replacement for 2008 sprint king Street Boss. The stable initially struggled when synthetic surfaces were installed, but Headley has adapted even while remaining a proponent of dirt. Expectations for summer 2009 are high. Unfortunately, the odds will be low.
Until recently, Jerry Hollendorfer was a stone bet-against at Del Mar. He won only six races from 104 starters from 2000 through 2005. It all changed in 2006; the Northern California kingpin expanded his stable to Southern California and achieved the success for which he was known in the Bay Area. The past three summers, Hollendorfer won 29 Del Mar races from 133 starters, and 2008 was his best Del Mar yet. He went 14 for 56, winning with everything from low-level claimers to stakes. The quality of the stable has improved, and Hollendorfer may have the stock this summer to fill a gap in his resume - a graded stakes win at Del Mar. Most winners are dirt; he is 4 for 41 on grass the past three years. Given a choice between a stakes and allowance, Hollendorfer usually takes the easier spot. Fifth in the standings last summer, Hollendorfer will be live all season.
More than 60 percent of Del Mar races are sprints, which is ideal for Brian Koriner. He has not won a Del Mar route the past three summers (0 for 16), but remains deadly at one turn. The past three summers he won with 25 percent of his sprint starters on every surface (dirt, turf and Polytrack) and various class levels (claiming to allowance). Sharp horses hold form for Koriner, layoff runners are ready to fire, and shippers are usually in the right spot. Koriner ran amok in 2006 at Del Mar, going 10 for 23; the following season he was only 4 for 37, but returned to form in 2008, going 9 for 48. It's all about speed for Koriner, whose biggest upset last summer was low-level claimer Smudgeledo ($28.60), who wired the field under Garrett Gomez. Win or lose, Koriner starters often are the pace of the race; last-start maiden winners often repeat vs. winners (5 for 10 last three years).
Despite the inopportune disqualification of Kelly Leak from victory in the Grade 2 Best Pal, Machowsky had a big 2008 Del Mar. Machowsky trainees crossed the wire first in six of 22 starts; five official wins produced a flat-bet profit ($2.36 ROI). That is the good news. The negative view is that without an upset by second-start-back maiden Inspired Storm ($24.40) in the final race of the meet, Machowsky would have recorded his third straight flat-bet loss at Del Mar. A key Del Mar category for Machowsky is 2-year-olds. Kelly Leak and Majormotionpicture "won" last year; ill-fated Drill Down won a 2007 maiden race. Machowsky averages about 20 starts a summer, and wins in a variety of categories including maidens, droppers and turf horses. Though his starters sometimes are overbet, Machowsky wins when he supposed to. The past three years, Machowsky favorites won six of 13 at Del Mar.
A virtual unknown prior to 2006, Peter Miller has established himself as a force at Del Mar by averaging eight wins the last three seasons. He also is increasingly popular with bettors; all but one winner last summer paid $8.60 or less. A sprint trainer, Miller wins at a 24 percent clip (22 for 89, $2.42 ROI) around one turn at Del Mar; he is a bet-against around two turns (2 for 27, $0.99 ROI). Miller is based at nearby San Luis Rey Downs; much of his operation is based on 2-year-olds. He has not yet won with a first-time starter at Del Mar (0 for 13), but maidens improve second and third out, particularly dropping in class. The quality of Miller's 2-year-olds has improved; his early juveniles at Hollywood included purchases for $80K, $150K and $270K. It can be a double-edged sword. Many of Miller's maiden-claiming winners at Del Mar were inexpensive droppers. But will he have the freedom to drop costly purchases if necessary?
Mike Mitchell is on his way to becoming the all-time Del Mar training leader; he enters 2009 only 33 wins behind Ron McAnally (432 to 399). At the current pace, Mitchell will hit the top near the end of the 2010 season. A high-volume trainer consistently among the Del Mar leaders in both starts and wins, Mitchell last summer managed an $88 closing-day upset with class-hike allowance winner Delta Storm in a sprint stakes. It is a pattern. When his horses are sharp, Mitchell runs them. The past five summers, Mitchell has won at 30 percent with horses that won their most recent start. Mitchell manages his stable aggressively, drops when needed, and wins at a high rate with recent claims. Layoff runners often need a race, and horses changing in distance under-perform. First-time starters are 3 for 7 the past two years. Mitchell will be a top-three trainer again this summer.
Jeff Mullins is often in hot water; he was sanctioned in spring after a security-barn infraction at Aqueduct. For handicappers, it is a mere distraction. The fact is, Mullins remains one of the top horsemen in California and an annual force at Del Mar, where he has won with 24 percent (129 for 537) of his starters since 2000. One-two in the standings four of the last five summers, Mullins is dangerous is most categories except first-start maidens. Recent claims and acquisitions offer value. Tanzanite ($55.80) won first off the claim last year; Redhotandrolling ($32.80) shipped from New Mexico in 2007. Mullins has a knack for dropping claiming horses multiple levels while they still have a race or two left. There are few wasted starts at Del Mar for Mullins, whose consistency makes him a threat all summer. Mullins horses typically are among the best-looking in the post parade, well-spotted, and always live. Assistant trainer Ral Ayers took over the stable in spring while Mullins dealt with the Aqueduct situation.
Doug O'Neill runs the biggest stable in Southern California, starts more horses at Del Mar than any trainer, and will be among the meet leaders all season. O'Neill is loaded with 2-year-olds; at one point in spring at Hollywood he won five straight maiden races. Last summer he scored three Del Mar upsets with first-start 2-year-olds (Wild Wild Posse, $18.60; Escalon, $29.80 and It's Gotta Be Us, $15.60). A reason for the high odds is O'Neill does not work horses fast, and instead uses long gallops for conditioning. It is effective in most categories except grass, where O'Neill remains a parimutuel liability. Despite a 3-for-21 turf record last summer, O'Neill's long-range statistics on grass are brutal. He is 4 for 77 the past three summers; 5 for 132 over five years. On the main track, O'Neill wins at a steady 15 percent clip, and his Poly starters have outperformed the takeout by producing a $1.82 ROI. Layoff horses are ready to fire at Del Mar.
Todd Pletcher expanded his powerful stable to California for fall and winter - Oak Tree at Santa Anita, Hollywood Park fall and Santa Anita winter. But he has never raced at Del Mar. If he does ship a string west, Pletcher will not come empty-handed. His stable is comprised of stakes and allowance horses, and every summer in the East he unveils a good group of 2-year-olds. Pletcher and "road assistant" Michael McCarthy have made a mark in California, 42 for 175 during the seven race meets at which they campaigned regularly. In California, Pletcher has higher numbers on turf than synthetic (29 percent winners turf, 18 percent synthetic). Like many who train expensive prospects, Pletcher 2-year-olds tend to be undervalued. The past five years across the country his debut 2-year-olds have won at a solid 20 percent but generated a low $1.52 ROI; second-start maidens win at 23 percent for a $1.40 ROI. If he ships west, it could be an interesting summer.
Mike Puype admits synthetic surfaces forced him to change his methods. Rather than work horses on one track and race on another, Puype now trains his stock at the track they race. The adjustment paid off in 2008 at Del Mar, where Puype went 7 for 34 to re-establish himself as a summer force. His first three winners were second-start maidens; lightly raced prospects held form even while moving up in class. It was an improvement from the two previous summers when Puype was a combined 2 for 47. Among the hardest-working trainers on the backstretch, Puype also is a student of the game and willing to tweak his style to the quirks of synthetic. He has always done well with imports and layoff horses, while maidens typically need a start. Two-turn horses at Del Mar outperformed sprinters in recent seasons, and Puype will enter the 2009 season with an eclectic mix of lightly raced prospects and scattered imports from South America.
The first Del Mar training title by John Sadler in 2008 was shadowed by an anabolic steroid controversy. Sadler was 31 for 121; critics claimed Sadler operated at an unfair advantage because at least 18 runners tested for steroids, which at the time were in the process of being regulated and are now prohibited. Since last summer, the consistent Sadler has continued to win at a high rate and in 2009 has one of the top stables in California. Sadler is effective in most categories, and frequently produces longshot victories with horses changing in distance or surface. Layoff horses are ready to fire, and his Polytrack win percent is 10 points higher in Del Mar routes than sprints. Even though first-time starters are a notoriously low-percent category for Sadler, he won twice last summer with rookies. A 20 percent trainer year after year at Del Mar, Sadler will be one of the leaders again this year. His early-summer roster included Del Mar horses-for-course Black Mamba, Evita Argentina, Dawn Before Dawn, and Cost of Freedom.
Wagering value is tough to find on Kathy Walsh trainees at Del Mar. She annually wins at a solid 15 percent, yet most are obvious contenders at low odds ($8 was top payoff during last summer's 4-for-17 season). This summer might be different, because Walsh is having her most active season in 15 years. The size of her stable has nearly doubled, and her 25 percent win rate the first five months of the year suggests continued success into summer even while 2007 Del Mar Futurity winner Georgie Boy mends from quarter cracks. One reason for depressed odds on Walsh starters is she only runs horses where they belong, and rarely takes shots. Maidens typically need a start before showing their best, layoff runners frequently are ready to first start back. Walsh is on pace for the highest annual purse total of her career, and figures to roll right through summer. Watch out when Georgie Boy returns.