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Trainers: Brad Free's Top 25
Barry Abrams is closely linked to Unusual Heat, a European import whom Abrams retired to stud two starts after claiming him in 1996 for $80,000. Unusual Heat currently is the leading California stallion; most Abrams-trained runners are sired by Unusual Heat and bred by Abrams or partners. Abrams's win rate at Del Mar usually hovers at a modest 10 percent, but high win payoffs fatten the bottom line (three-year Del Mar ROI $2.18). Second- and third-time starters frequently improve, even when racing above their conditions. Abrams has no qualms running maidens in stakes (maiden second-time starter Golden Doc paid $35.80 in a 2007 stakes); comebackers often are overlooked ($31.60 Ballistic Heat in 2007). Offspring of Unusual Heat run best on grass, but also handle synthetic. Abrams enters the 2008 meet with another deep crop of Unusual Heat maidens. Few will win first out; most will improve second time. Beware of Abrams on the stretch-out. Stretch-out second-time starter Mr. Chairman paid $94 in 2006; stretch-out claiming filly Lady Champagne paid $46 in 2005.
Although A.C. Avila is considered expert at setting up a betting coup, recent Del Mar meets suggest his reputation is part myth. Want to cash on an Avila longshot winner? Simply back sharp horses moving up in class. Avila-trained Rush With Thunder was the Polytrack poster boy in 2007; he won four straight synthetic routes (three for Avila) including a $52.80 upset while moving up from $20,000 claiming to $62,500 claiming. Rush With Thunder maintained sharp form all summer and also won an allowance and a minor stakes. Avila's only other 2007 winner was Topper's Gold ($5.60), by the super Polytrack sire Old Topper. But even in 2006 on dirt, the Avila pattern was the same. His two highest-paying winners were in-form horses ($23.80 Mystical Caper moving up one level off a third-place finish, and $15.60 Quebec Citizen going turf to dirt). Avila uses jockey Omar Berrio on most runners, the trade-off being that higher odds on a low-profile jockey will compensate for the occasional troubled trip. Avila still puts over occasional upsets, and any horse making its second start of the meet after finishing off the board merits close scrutiny.
Bob Baffert started only 59 runners at Del Mar in 2007; their $501,000 in purses marked the lowest Del Mar total for Baffert since 1994. The decline was foreshadowed in 2006, when Baffert had only 67 starters. The last two summers marked his lowest Del Mar start total in 10 years. So what's in store for 2008 - who knows? After recently losing owners Zayat Stables, Thoroughbred Corp., and Golden Eagle Farm, the Baffert stable lacks depth among older horses, one reason that 16 of his 25 wins the past two summers have been maiden races. Fifth on the all-time list of Del Mar trainers (318 wins), Baffert runners typically are hammered below fair value; he has not produced a flat-bet profit for a Del Mar meet since 2000. It might be a mistake to write off Baffert entirely, however. He won three Polytrack races last summer with horses sired by El Corredor, and he recognizes the pedigree subtleties on synthetic. The question is, what will Baffert do about it? Until fortunes change for the once-powerful Baffert stable, horseplayers will continue to tread with caution.
Surprisingly, Rafael Becerra trainees continue to offer wagering value at Del Mar and year-round. By now, word should be out. Based on a consistent 16 to 18 percent overall win rate, and steady ROI that regularly beats the takeout, Becerra is solid. He enjoyed his best Del Mar meet last summer, winning 8 of 32 and generating a flat-bet profit ($2.24 ROI) for the second straight season. Becerra cannot be pigeonholed by category. Sharp horses maintain form; recent acquisitions frequently improve. Even when forced to drop in class, Becerra trainees are well-spotted. His two highest win payoffs last year were droppers ($32K maiden-claimer Laday Tale paid $19.80 returning from a layoff and dropping in for a tag; $10K claimer Matty G Whiz returned $12 second start back). Main owner K.K. Sangara allows Becerra to run them where they belong; the bulk of the stable's runners were purchased via the claim box. While he also produces with layoff runners, the true testament to Becerra's ability is that he wins when he is supposed to - the past three years at Del Mar he is 8 for 16 with post-time favorites.
After a slow 2006 summer (5 for 39, all short prices), Julio Canani re-emerged as a top Del Mar trainer in 2007. He won 7 of 41, and produced a flat-bet profit ($3.23 ROI) for the third time in four years. Canani always is loaded for Del Mar, where his mantra is "You need a fresh horse." It means layoff runners are "live" first time back. Though he made his Del Mar reputation on turf (Grade 1 winners Ladies Din, Amorama, Special Ring), Canani is effective on the main track. His highest payoff last summer: a Polytrack maiden-40 starter ($57.60 Forestry's Fire), making his second start of the meet. Everest Stable is sending Canani higher quality runners by the good synthetic stallion Petionville (Two Step Salsa), and Canani figures for another big summer on both surfaces. Always a high-percentage trainer, Canani rarely takes shots; his overlay winners are overlooked comebackers ($25.80 winner The Big One last summer), or sharp horses moving up (Amorama paid $17.60 in a Grade 1 in 2005; Shining Energy paid $19 in a Grade 2). With little fanfare, Canani enters 2008 as the eighth all-time Del Mar stakes leader (35).
Jack Carava operates one of the most active claiming stables on the circuit, yet typically flies under the radar. That's good for value-minded handicappers who recognize a profitable niche. Nine of the 16 Carava winners the past three summers have been first off the claim, often at prices. Gaddingabout ($22.80) won a $50K turf claimer last summer first off the claim; Pure as Gold ($48.20) won the Grade 1 Bing Crosby in 2006 first off the claim; and in 2005 four of Carava's five winners were first off the claim. Not surprisingly, it adds to a $3.45 ROI first off the claim at Del Mar. And even if the Pure as Gold bomber is not considered, Carava still shows a flat-bet profit in the category. The only non-claiming race Carava won the past three summers was the Bing Crosby; every other winner ran for a tag ($10K to $50K). While value usually is found going up the ladder, Carava occasionally wins on the drop. Last year's second-biggest upset was One Flew Over. Claimed for $12.5K, she got buried for $16K, then dropped to $10K and scored at $22.20.
Vladimir Cerin was a solid 8 for 39 at Del Mar last summer, but the only overlay was Pacific Classic winner Student Council ($48.80), a horse shipped to him less than a week earlier. Though Cerin has won a combined 19 percent the past three summers, short prices abound. Even his second high-paying winner ($21.80 Highest Honoree in 2005) was on a questionable disqualification. Cerin-trained maidens moving up after a loss can be followed; he won twice last summer with the move. Aside from Student Council, every winner was an obvious, in-form runner. Once a terrific longshot trainer, Cerin is now Mr. Chalk, but his 15-for-30 win rate with Del Mar favorites the past three years has produced a flat-bet profit ($2.64). Cerin utilizes a hyperbaric chamber at his ranch near Santa Anita. The oxygenation that horses receive in the chamber helps speed their recovery from injuries and stress, and they return fully rejuvenated after a short rest. When a Cerin trainee has been off 31 to 60 days, it is fair to assume the horse has spent time in the chamber, and is ready to fire.
A methodical racing plan allows Craig Dollase to maintain statistics that satisfy owners and bettors. After a subpar 2005 summer (2 for 26), Dollase returned to top form the next two years. In 2006 at Del Mar, he won 8 of 29, while summer 2007 was his best yet - he won 11 of 36. Dollase does not over-race nor overmatch his stock. Last year, only one of his 11 winners was moving up in class; five were droppers and five were racing at the same level. Dollase wins with at least one first-time starter each season; client J. Paul Reddam is trying to establish first-crop California stallion Momentum as a synthetic sire, and Dollase is likely to have a 2-year-old new shooter by that sire up his sleeve. Fresh horses are ready to roll in summer, droppers are well meant, and the odds usually are short. But with lower prices comes greater reliability. The ROI for Dollase last year was $1.95; it was $2.67 the year before. And when Dollase starts the chalk, he is tough to beat - 10 for 16 the past three years, and a whopping $3.02 ROI.
Ron Ellis was stymied last summer, going 4 for 38. Blame it on a slow synthetic surface, or slow horses. Either way, the slump was out of character for historically high-percentage Ellis, who won a combined 12 of 28 the two previous summers at Del Mar. Based on an apparent rejuvenation this spring, Ellis is expected to bounce back in 2008. Ellis rarely starts longshots, preferring deliberate campaigns that allow horses to develop gradually (2004 debut winner Declan's Moon was an exception). Maidens typically improve second and third time out, allowance runners are realistically placed, and when Ellis does take a shot in a stakes, by then the horse's ability is obvious. While owners Mace and Samantha Siegel provide much of the Ellis firepower, he still wins first off the claim, a feat he accomplished three times during the 2005 summer meet. Ellis is expected to have a calculated campaign this year, starting few horses until they train and become familiar with the year-old synthetic surface. When Ellis is satisfied with their condition, they will be in the right spots.
No trainer wins more Del Mar turf races than Bobby Frankel and assistant Humberto Ascanio. However, 17 of 18 grass winners the past three summers paid 5-2 or less. Frankel trainees are realistically placed, in form, and patently obvious. It is why his turf win rate hovers at 25 percent, and why that category is overbet ($1.36 ROI past three years). He once imported scores of low-profile Europeans that outran their odds, but the Frankel pipeline now flows with impeccable bloodlines mostly from the high-caliber Juddmonte stable. These prospects often are exposed on pedigree even before their ability has been established. Layoff horses are live, the barn typically enters summer with fresh, well-stocked runners ranging from special-weight maidens to Grade 1 horses. Frankel is too consistent to bet against with confidence, but any Frankel trainee that has not won a maiden race by summer of its 3-year-old season is a potential phony. Del Mar maidens at 5-2 or less have won just 4 of their last 18, returning less than 60 cents per dollar wagered. Turf routes remain the Frankel specialty.
The late Nashoba's Key elevated Carla Gaines in terms of national stature, but West Coast horseplayers have long recognized her as a source of overlay payoffs with maidens (first- and second-time starters) and layoffs. The highest-paying Gaines winners the past three summers fit the niche: Last year she scored twice at 6-1 with first-time starters in maiden-claiming races, and a $24.20 layoff in a $25K claimer. The year before she posted two upsets with second-start maidens - at $35 and $10.20. And in 2005, a debut winner paid $13.80. What is the point? Only this - while stakes winners like Nashoba's Key, Tiz Elemental, and Tiz a Blend generate headlines, it is the unproven Gaines runners that generate wagering profit. Gaines is streaky, she points for Del Mar, and as long as California breeder John Harris grants the liberty of running homebreds for a tag, they will continue to outrun their prices. Look for maidens making their first or second starts, or a layoff claimer at a fat price, then go to the window.
Make no mistake - Bruce Headley would rather train on dirt. But the game has changed in California, and old dogs sometimes learn new tricks. After losing with his first 44 synthetic-surface starters, Headley has gone on a tear that in midseason showed no signs of letting up. Through late May, he had won with 24 of his 100 most recent synthetic runners, and enters Del Mar 2008 with a deep roster expected to include Street Boss, Magnificience, Silver Swallow, Arson Squad, Surf Cat, and Black Wolf. The parimutuel dilemma is that Headley runners historically are undervalued due to bullet works. Headley trains horses fast, and first-time starters and comebackers subsequently get hammered in the betting. Headley and longtime first-call jockey Alex Solis have parted ways. While Solis gets an occasional nugget, David Flores is now the go-to rider. The summer-fall season has potential to be one of the best ever for Headley and his daughter and assistant trainer, Karen Headley. It could be fun to watch, but enthusiasm might need to be tempered due to low odds on most runners. Stay tuned.
The uncertain midseason status of millionaire Brother Derek will make little difference to bettors who follow Dan Hendricks in the summer at Del Mar. Recent upgrades to the stable are mostly turf runners, including Daytona and Indian Sun. But for pure value, there is nothing like a Hendricks trainee seeking the first win of its career. Hendricks has won two Del Mar maiden races each of the past three years, including a pair of 2007 bombs - second-start dropper Dark Vader ($33.20) and sprint-to-route Beresford ($21.20). Beyond finding spots for maidens, Hendricks also has a knack for finding the right level for imports. Though he has imported only a handful of Europeans (Daytona, Shebang, Scrummage, and Brenin Gwalia), all eventually found their winning level in the U.S. During the 2008 summer meet at Del Mar, Hendricks is expected to start the multiple Grade 1 winner Daytona, the good 3-year-old Indian Sun, and veteran long-distance specialist Runaway Dancer. But don't forget about the nonwinners. Hendricks has won with six of his last 35 Del Mar maidens, generating a $2.52 ROI since late summer 2005.
Robert Hess Jr.
After declaring that Del Mar 2007 would be his best summer in several years, Robert Hess Jr. delivered on the promise by winning more races (seven) than any summer in five years. It did not start out that way; at the halfway point Hess had won just two. Apparently, his stable needed adjustment. The last five Hess winners were making their second start over the track. Maidens historically have been a Hess forte; eight of his last 19 Del Mar winners were maidens (last summer included four wins at the $25K maiden-claiming level). None of the maiden winners was a favorite; Hess has lost eight straight maiden races at Del Mar with the chalk. Beware short prices that look too good to be true. They usually are. Hess won last summer with first-off-the-claim Desert Sea ($23.40). The past few seasons, Hess's Del Mar win rate has declined to just slightly higher than 10 percent, and his favorites in recent seasons have won at only a 19 percent clip. The bottom line is that while Hess figures to win his fair share, value will be difficult to find.
Horseplayers who once bet against Northern California king Jerry Hollendorfer when he started in Southern California have revised the approach. Hollendorfer now operates one of the top stables on the tougher Southern California circuit including Del Mar, where Hollendorfer had a banner 2007 by winning 9 of 47. In 2006, he went 6 for 30. It has been an amazing turnaround for Hollendorfer, considering his combined 6-for-103 total the previous six seasons. Thanks to a $70.60 dirt-to-turf bomb, Hollendorfer showed a huge flat-bet profit ($3.30 ROI) last year. A specialty throughout the year is first-off-the-claim maiden-claimers; he won four Del Mar races last year with the move. Grade 1 winner Heatseeker was the midseason star, but value-oriented bettors will follow Hollendorfer any time a horse tries a new distance or surface, or starts for the first time following a trainer change. Eight of his nine Del Mar winners last summer fit that pattern. As the Northern California circuit shrinks, expectations are for Hollendorfer to have an expanded presence in Southern California. This summer, he should be among a handful of Del Mar trainers to crack the 10-win barrier.
Martin Jones lit up the board in 2005 when he went 10 for 36 at Del Mar and produced an insane $3.60 ROI. But then he disappeared, going just 4 for 69 combined over the following two summers. The projection for 2008 is for Jones to resurface. Many of his runners are local homebreds, but he also enters summer with promising maiden and allowance-caliber runners. The point is, Jones has too much ammunition to vanish for three straight Del Mar summers. He has done much of best work with sprinters (Grade 1 winners Alphabet Kisses and Bilo), but his win total often relies on maidens making their first and second starts. He will be heavy with California-breds; layoff runners often are ready to fire, and last year Jones scored with comeback claimer Captain Saco ($40.40), who was jumping three class levels and returning from a freshening. Jones has an assorted mix of statebreds and modest auction purchases, and should rebound with a successful 2008.
After dropping out of training from 1998 through 2003, Peter Miller re-entered the game in 2004, and by 2006 had emerged as a force. Miller is the only trainer based at San Luis Rey Downs that consistently wins races; this summer he seeks his third straight Del Mar success. The Grade 1 Del Mar Debutante win by Set Play ($31.40) capped an 11-for-53 meet last summer in which his runners produced a $2.35 ROI. It was not a fluke; in 2006 he went 6 for 25 and produced a $2.58 ROI. Miller spent more this year on 2-year-olds than any previous year, and enters summer fully stocked with babies. Interestingly, Miller trainees continue to offer value despite apparently good form. When his horses get sharp, Miller runs them where they fit; his two biggest payoffs (Set Play last year, $19 Kouri Jill in 2006) were coming back at similar levels after in-the-money finishes. Miller is good with layoff horses, trainer changes including claims, and second-time starters. But ultimately, his 2008 summer rests on a strong group of 2-year-olds, including runaway stakes winner Backbackbackgone.
The second-leading trainer on the all-time list with 380 career wins at Del Mar, Mike Mitchell keeps on rolling. A high-volume trainer who has "classed up" the stable with graded stakes winners Ever a Friend, On the Acorn, Big Booster, and Romance Is Diane, Mitchell's strength remains claimers. The past three summers, 28 of 39 Del Mar wins were claiming races; one-quarter were first-off-the-claim. Recent acquisitions frequently improve, and owners give Mitchell leeway to drop when necessary. His two highest payoffs in 2006 and 2007 ($24.40 Will last summer; $18.80 Blue Cay in 2006) were droppers; his high payoff in 2005 was a first-off-the-claim turf horse winning a Grade 2. When a Mitchell trainee gets sharp, he finds a spot to run. The past three summers at Del Mar, Mitchell starters who finished in the money their previous start won at a 27 percent clip (25 for 92) while producing a $2.03 ROI. Mitchell averages 13 to 14 wins each summer, figures for at least as many this season, and enters the meet only 48 wins behind all-time Del Mar leader Ron McAnally.
A consistently high win percentage and fair-value odds are two reasons some handicappers consider Jeff Mullins the best horseman in Southern California. At Del Mar, Mullins typically fires at a 24 percent rate; he has finished one-two in the standings the past five years. Surprisingly, considering his profile, Mullins trainees still offer value, and generated a flat-bet profit five of the last six summers. Mullins is deadly first off the claim and with layoff runners, but the fact is he is effective across the board. His horses look great physically, hold form, and are realistically placed. Except for an occasional higher-class comebacker in for a prep, most layoff horses are "well meant." And when a Mullins horse reaches top form, Mullins does not waste starts by running over their heads. And he still fires with an occasional longshot. Redhotandrolling ($32.80) shipped in for Mullins in 2007; 2-year-old maidens Garden of Stars ($18.40 debut) and Scoonerwharfbarbog ($18.20 second-time starter) were parimutuel highlights in 2006; Southern Rule ($30) shipped in and won in 2005. The bottom line is that Mullins is consistent, reliable, and a must-use with everything he starts.
Higher volume has diminished parimutuel efficiency for Doug O'Neill, who starts more horses than any Southern California trainer. Last summer he averaged four Del Mar starters daily. Quantity made him the leading Del Mar trainer three times in four years, but shortage of value forces bettors to go negative. On turf, O'Neill is a stone bet-against - 2 for 81 on grass the past three summers. In Del Mar graded stakes he has won 2 of his last 28 (Lava Man, Stevie Wonderboy). Value-wise, O'Neill was more effective from 1998 to 2002, when he started half as many horses (400 per year then, more than 1,000 per year now). One-third of O'Neill's recent Del Mar winners were maiden-claimers. A criticism is that O'Neill races horses over their heads. When he takes a shot in a stakes, that's all it is, a shot. Personable and media-savvy, O'Neill enters summer 2008 with negligible equine muscle. If there is a star, it is a 2-year-old. If there is a longshot, it is a new shooter. His two biggest payoffs last year were comebacker Men Only ($49.60) and firster Ask Sam ($27.60).
Securely positioned as one of the top five trainers in Southern California, John Sadler is always a force at Del Mar, where each of the past six summers he has won 12 or more races. Unfortunately for bettors, Sadler is hardly a secret; payoffs have fallen accordingly. Over the past year and a half, Sadler winners have slid from a takeout-beating ROI of roughly $1.85, to only $1.50. But all is not gloom. Even while Sadler has upgraded his stable with expensive auction purchases and high-class imports from New Zealand and South America, he remains an effective longshot trainer in certain situations. Specifically, surface and distance switches. His three highest payoffs last summer at Del Mar were doing something different - route-to-sprint Characteristic ($32.20), sprint-to-route Seaside Affair ($28.20), and turf-to-synthetic Westerly Magic ($28.20). It happens every year. Sadler's high payoff in 2006 was first-time turf; in 2005 two dirt-to-turf returns were $92.80 and $25.80. He rarely wins with first-time starters, but a good cast of unraced 2-year-olds will emerge this summer.
Art Sherman has fallen off the proverbial cliff. Despite much past success at Del Mar, he enters the 2008 meet facing a huge question mark. Annually a 24 percent trainer, Sherman served a 10-day suspension early this year (high bicarbonate test), and simultaneously his 2008 win rate plummeted. As of late May, Sherman was just 4 for 65 this year. It might be attributed to relocation of his main stable to Southern California. Sherman was based in Northern California most of his career, but this year has focused on the Southern California circuit. Del Mar would be a good place for Sherman to pick up the slack. He scored turf-race upsets last summer with two Northern California shippers - Knockout Artist ($40.60) in the Oceanside Stakes, and Barber ($25.60) in a sprint stakes. Two upsets in 2006 were fresh horses. They were first-off-the-claim Wickersham ($25) and first-time starter Celestial Being ($33.40). Sherman has been a top trainer for years, and the slump eventually will end. But until fortunes turn, all bets are off.
Bettors are required to pay close attention to John Shirreffs, whose careful management means his well-bred horses are given plenty of time between starts and sneak up when unexpected. It happened last summer when Del Mar first-time starter Reflect Times ($36.80) lifted Shirreffs to parimutuel profitability for the third straight year. That 2-year-old was Shirreffs's only Polytrack winner of 2007; four other wins were on grass. After Market won two graded stakes, and allowance-caliber mare Imagine also won twice. Shirreffs is deliberate, and usually runs horses only when they are in top shape. It seems obvious, yet all three Del Mar winners in 2006 paid double digits, as did 3 of 4 at Del Mar in 2005. Shirreffs's overall layoff statistics require separation by surface. The win rate of his main-track comebackers (26 percent) is much higher than turf (14 percent). That statistic is up for revision, because Shirreffs disfavors synthetic surfaces. Shirreffs does not train for speed, nor are his horses bred for speed. His horses rarely impress morning clockers, which is why his occasional debut winners often pay big prices.
After three consecutive unproductive Del Mar summers during which he won a total of three races from 60 starters, Darrell Vienna came back to life in 2007. He went 6 for 28, and produced value start to finish. Two winners were going turf-to-Polytrack, including a $17.60 allowance filly; he won two Grade 2 turf stakes with Medici Code ($12.40 and $12.60); his biggest upset was Atlando ($23.60), a graded stakes winner dropping in class who merely slipped through the parimutuel cracks. While Vienna cannot be categorized as a particular "type" of trainer, he recently has done well with stakes-winning imports from Europe (Atlando, Medici Code) as well as South America (Magnum, Star Parade). What is in store for summer 2008? It is hard to say. But recent trends suggest bettors should take a second look at any Vienna longshot. Though he has won at a modest 13 percent rate since January 2007, Vienna has produced a super $2.71 ROI during that 18-month time frame.
Fresh horses are the strength for Wesley Ward, whose 15 winners the past three seasons combined at Del Mar include nine either making their career debut, or returning from a layoff. Ward has shifted his focus outside California, but top assistant Blake Heap runs a winning operation on the West Coast. Long layoffs are no trouble; the highest Del Mar winner last summer from the stable was $10K claiming filly Netty's Knockout ($16.40), making her first start in more than a year. The stable trains for speed, and most winners are sprinters (only one route winner the past three years). Ward usually arrives at Del Mar with well-meant 2-year-olds. Maiden droppers are in to win, first-time starters are usually live, and Ward annually has bullets for the lucrative Cal-bred program. Win or lose, when a Ward starter is entered at Del Mar, handicappers can count on a reliable pace. They usually are quick.