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Trainers leave distinct trails: Follow the patterns to a profit
It is a season of change at Del Mar, where the new Polytrack racing surface promises to be an ongoing adventure for horseplayers and horsemen. One thing that will not change, however, is the list of familiar names at the top of the trainer standings.
The 23 trainers listed below have already made an impact in Southern California, or are expected to this summer at Del Mar. The list of key stables could have been longer, and is likely to require change as some trainers get hot, and others go cold. As the 2007 summer season gets underway, these are some of the names likely to make an impact for seven weeks at Del Mar.
Long before opening day, an optimistic Abrams exclaimed, "I can't wait for Del Mar. I've got all turf horses, and they should love Polytrack." Abrams has 30 offspring by Unusual Heat, and he said "28 are ready to run." Bettors are hereby warned -- do not let an Abrams longshot slip by without a wager. Abrams has 26 Del Mar winners the past five years, and 16 returned $10 or higher. His knockouts include second-time starter $94.60 Mr. Chairman last summer, first-off-the-claim $68.40 Ammann in 2004, and sprint-to-route $46 Lady's Champagne in 2005. Abrams's 2-year-olds include a half-dozen first-timers and the well-regarded Golden Doc A, who ran better-than-looked in her July 8 debut. But the star of the stable is the 3-year-old filly Spenditallbaby.
"I might be crazy, but I'm looking to win the Del Mar Oaks with her," Abrams said.
Don't put it past him. Abrams's win rate the past five years at Del Mar is just 11 percent (26 for 230), but the longshot winners propelled his return on investment to $2.16 for each $2 win bet.
A sharp young horseman based in the Midwest at Lone Star and Churchill Downs, 27-year-old Autrey applied for 15 Del Mar stalls. It will be his initial foray to California. Known for aggressive placement and high win rate (23 percent or higher the past four years), Autrey won his first race in 2000 at Retama Park and is on his way to a career-best season (nearly 80 wins and $1.5 million in earnings through early July). He entered the second week of July ranked third in the Lone Star standings while firing at a 32 percent clip. Stay tuned.
It has been a quiet year for Baffert. The pressure is on at Del Mar, where Baffert typically unveils his top 2-year-old prospects. Forty-seven of his 107 winners the past five years have been 2-year-olds. The colt Maimonides, a Vindication colt who is a half-brother to El Corredor and Roman Ruler, has been working bullets and is likely to start early. The filly More Happy, also by Vindication, has shown promise.
While high-class younger stock is the focus, Baffert said that this summer, "I have a bench."
The filly Under Serviced has woken up since a winning debut June 24 at Hollywood and could run in the Grade 3 Sorrento on Aug. 8. Baffert emphasized that most 2-year-old firsters will need a start over the new Del Mar racing surface. Overlays may be hard to find. The past five years, only 11 Baffert winners paid $10 or higher. It makes for an effective elimination tool -- toss out the Baffert longshots.
Going into the final week of Hollywood, Cerin was winning at a 24-percent clip -- operating a successful stable even while dealing with personal tragedy. Cerin's wife, Kellie, died in an accident Feb. 1.
Cerin will head to Del Mar with a solid 36-horse stable that includes promising 2-year-olds Leonides (a colt), and Sayit (a filly). If things break right, Cerin could start with a bang at Del Mar, where he usually does well. An overall 38-for-212 record the past five years generated a small profit for each $2 win bet, while on grass Cerin is dynamite. A 20 percent turf win rate (13 for 66) produced a $2.98 ROI.
Cerin has a slew of grass runners for Del Mar, including 3-year-old filly Fleet Caroline in the San Clemente on July 28. The 10-year-old Designed for Luck is close to a comeback, Fleetheart runs in a minor stakes July 21, and Willow O Wisp will drop in class into a restricted stakes for his next start.
Stormello put Currin on the map last year. Del Mar is where that colt won a maiden race second time out. Currin's 2007 roster is filled with 2-year-olds. They include Youarefun, a California-bred half to Freesgood who finished a good fourth in his debut; Divine Legacy, a half to speedball Bashert; Ever So Pretty, a full to Stormello; and Memorette's unraced 3-year-old sibling Luvulongtime. Currin maidens improve second time out.
Memorette will aim for filly-mare turf stakes. Bashert, a 4-year-old who was graded stakes-placed at 2, has had throat surgery since his March comeback and is eligible to a first-level allowance.
Turf is the Drysdale specialty. All seven of his Del Mar winners in 2006 were on grass, and he tied for the meet lead in that category. Sooner or later, Drysdale will switch surfaces and try a turf horse on Polytrack. When that happens, watch out. Drysdale is deliberate and does not act on a whim.
His current stable lacks a star, but after a modest spring, Drysdale may be laying in wait for Del Mar. Fresh comebackers will be ready to fire, maidens who come up hot in the wagering will be well meant, and Becrux is overdue for a good trip. An unlucky fourth in the American Handicap on July 4, Becrux should fire this summer. He has won a stakes at Del Mar each of the past two years.
The recent Hollywood streak by Ellis (17 for 52 after July 7) is no surprise. Ellis has always been a high-percentage trainer. The past five years, Ellis is 23 for 96 at Del Mar, with his winners scattered mostly in claiming and first-level allowance races. The challenge this summer is realistically spotting the Hollywood maiden winners in allowance and claiming races at Del Mar.
One thing that the Ellis runners will have is proven form on synthetic track. Every winner of his at Hollywood was on the Cushion Track. DeclanOs Moon is back on the beam, and improving fillies Theverythoughtofu and Glorified will look for spots.
Ellis might not continue at a 30-percent clip, but his runners will be in the right spot. Buzzards Bay will prep in the San Diego then run in the Pacific Classic, and expectations are high for well-regarded 2-year-old colt Rail Trip, sired by Jump Start.
Though he ranks fourth all-time for Del Mar wins and stakes, Frankel has shifted his summer focus away from California. He did not win a single graded stakes at Del Mar last summer, though he won 9 of 32 races overall.
His most recent Del Mar wins came with allowance-caliber grass runners and maidens. This spring, Frankel spent more time at Hollywood than last year, and he could be poised for resurgence at Del Mar. Layoff horses will be ready to fire first start back.
Finding value on Frankel runners is increasingly difficult. The past five years at Del Mar, only four of Frankel's 38 winners paid more than $10.
The undefeated Grade 1 filly Nashoba's Key is blowing it for California horseplayers who would prefer that Gaines stay a well-kept secret. One of the top trainers in California, Gaines has runners who repeatedly offer value on the main track, and at Del Mar. She went 7 for 28 last summer, thanks partly to four maiden winners. Because she trains for California breeders, Gaines has the luxury of running maidens for a claim price. The past five years, she is 11 for 49 with Del Mar maidens, and produced a $2.85 ROI for each $2 bet.
Second-start maidens are a specialty. The weak spot is turf. Since 2002, Gaines is only 5 for 56 on Del Mar grass. Nashoba's Key is expected to run Aug. 4 on turf in the Grade 1 John C. Mabee, or the following day on Polytrack in the Grade 2 Clement Hirsch.
After winning just 12 races at Del Mar from 2002 through 2005, Gallagher broke through last summer with 9 winners from 56 starts. Even the winners, however, were underlays -- eight paid $7.40 or less. Gallagher's ROI was $1.08 for each $2 bet (his five-year Del Mar ROI is $1.25). Gallagher has high-class stock -- his winners are allowance-caliber and stakes. First-time starters can be tossed. The past five years at all tracks, his special-weight firsters are 3 for 92. Valbenny is the top horse in Gallagher's barn.
Headley said he is loaded for Del Mar. He had better be, because synthetic surfaces have so far been his nemesis. Going into the final week of Hollywood summer, Headley had yet to win a race on a synthetic surface (0 for 27 including last fall). His crack sprinter Surf Cat has had a prep race and resurfaces Aug. 19 in the Grade 2 Pat O'Brien. Graded stakes winner Arson Squad returns July 21 in the Grade 2 San Diego Handicap, a prep for the Pacific Classic.
There are others, including maidens and allowance runners pointed specifically for summer. Hopes are high for the unraced 3-year-old filly Zilla, a daughter of Stormy Atlantic filly who looks and trains like something special. Almost half of Headley's Del Mar winners the past five years were experienced maidens. His first-time starters usually need a start. Allowance comebackers should be ready. Caution is advised until Headley proves his training methods works as well on synthetic as they do on dirt.
Bob Hess Jr.
Will summer 2007 be a breakout meet for Hess? He says so.
"We'll have our best Del Mar in 10 years," he promised.
Hess is loaded with stat-building maidens, from special weights down to maiden claimers. If nothing else, Hess will have a better summer with maidens than his 1-for-20 mark last year (6 for 68 overall). One maiden he is high on is Scibelli, a 2-year-old colt by win-early sire Orientate. Among proven horses, the good allowance horse Hewitts has been gelded since his last win. Now 2 for 3, this son of Concerto will have a comeback prep, then aim for a possible start Aug. 31 in the $125,000 El Cajon Stakes for 3-year-olds at a mile.
Hollendorfer won more races (three) opening week of the 2006 meet than in the previous four summers combined. It was not by accident. After going 2 for 70 at Del Mar from 2002 through 2005, he won with 6 of his first 18 starters last summer before cooling off.
With the biggest stable in Northern California, Hollendorfer will try to replicate his 2006 success with a 26-horse stable he called "a mixture of horses." Among the best is the 2-year-old colt Imaginary Sailor, runaway winner both his starts at Golden Gate. Hollendorfer has a main goal for the 2007 meet.
"I'd love to win a stake at Del Mar," he said. Count on it happening.
Previously based exclusively in Northern California, Koriner is now split between two circuits, with his best runners based in Southern California.
Koriner exploded last summer at Del Mar by winning 10 of 23. Half his winners were maidens, and more than 100 of his 300-plus overall winners the past five years were maidens.
Koriner invested heavily at 2-year-olds in training sales this year, and will be a Del Mar force with lightly raced maidens and allowance stock. While he can fire first out (Black Seventeen won his debut by more than nine lengths last summer), Koriner's win rate doubles (14 percent to 27 percent) second time out. He won three races last summer with second-time starters.
After a sensational start to the spring-summer meet at Hollywood (10 wins from his first 22 starters), Lobo went cold (0 for 15).
"It's hard to keep up with those numbers," he said. His Hollywood stats were bolstered by four maiden-claiming winners. Lobo said he expects to have a better Oak Tree than Del Mar, with more South Americans arriving who need time to acclimate.
Lobo's momentum stalled at Hollywood after he was hit with a clenbuterol overage, and it looks like the stable needs freshening. Molengao could resurface in the Pacific Classic, despite his dud in the Hollywood Gold Cup.
Bettors following Mandella have been subjected to the law of diminishing returns. The Hall of Fame trainer's horses have become routinely overbet. The past six months, the ROI on Mandella runners is less than $1 for each $2 win bet. The past five summers at Del Mar his ROI is $1.48. Mandella won seven races each of the last two years, but aside from The Tin Man, his older-horse division lacks depth.
Mandella said he has "more 2-year-olds than I usually have," led by impressive June 30 maiden winner Slam Slew (a Beyer Speed Figure of 91). Mandella won twice with 2-year-olds at Hollywood, the maiden Booted remains well regarded, and Mandella will be active early with babies. Nearly half of Mandella's Del Mar winners since 2002 have been on turf, but his current stable is geared strongly toward younger stock. The past five years, Mandella is 9 or 47 at Del Mar with 2-year-old maidens ($1.34 ROI); the highest win payoff was $10.40.
Barring the unforeseen, Mitchell will pass Farrell Jones this summer and become the second all-time leading trainer at Del Mar. Mitchell enters with 365 wins, nine behind Jones. Most of his winners are claimers, but Mitchell's current stable includes about a dozen 2-year-olds he will unleash starting in the second condition book. Most will need a race, though Mitchell fires occasionally with fast-working firsters.
The past five years, three-quarters of Mitchell's 54 Del Mar winners ran for a claiming price, and nearly one-third were first off the claim. Mitchell wins often on the drop. He is one of only five trainers to win 10 or more Del Mar races the past three summers, and he will be a threat at every level. His current powerhouses are Sun Boat, Big Booster, and Battle Won.
The most controversial trainer to gain a recent foothold in Southern California because of an uncommonly high 27-percent win rate from 1997 to 2004, Mullins has become mortal. His win rate now hovers at a politically acceptable 20 percent, the same as his 2006 Del Mar rate (16 for 80).
Mullins no longer goes full-steam year-round; instead he is more of a "streak trainer." It muddles the projection for Del Mar, because he was on a hot streak at the Hollywood spring-summer meet and was not holding anything back for Del Mar. Indications are he could start Del Mar relatively slowly, picking up the tempo later.
Mullins is heavy with claimers. He runs horses where they fit, and he should win 10 or more Del Mar races for the fifth straight year. Mullins claimers win about one in four. Horses claimed away from Mullins win only 14 percent next out. In recent months, Mullins has started an increasing number of maidens who he usually races into shape.
The pre-season favorite to lead the meet, O'Neill has a volume-based operation that is gaining power in the 2-year-old ranks. He nominated almost 40 juveniles to the Futurity and Debutante. But it remains to be seen if the shift in O'Neill's stable will generate value, because he has become perhaps the most over-bet trainer in California. His 19 winners last summer at Del Mar generated a return on investment of $1.07 for each $2 wager. The stats are even lower on Del Mar turf, where O'Neill's 4-percent rate (5 for 128) the past five years produced an ROI of 52 cents and makes him a grass-race bet-against. (Warning: Laddies Poker will be fancied opening day in the Oceanside Stakes.)
Route-to-sprint is a positive move for O'Neill, and recent acquisitions (claiming or private purchases) often improve in their initial starts for the stable. When the 2-year-olds "stretch out" to six furlongs and beyond, the Old Topper-sired runners owned and bred by Tommy Town will be at their best. And of course, there is the venerable gelding Lava Man, aiming for the Pacific Classic.
Remarkably consistent, Sadler offers handicappers the rare combination of value and percentage. He has won 12 to 14 races each season at Del Mar since 2002, with his win rate hovering between 17 and 21 percent.
Bettors are overplaying Sadler's dirt horses at Del Mar ($1.02 ROI last year), but his turf horses generate prices. Last summer he went 6 for 28 on grass and generated a $2.14 ROI. The past five years he has won 22 of 98 on turf and produced a sky-high $3.64 ROI.
Sadler trains potential grass star Crossing the Line, but his stable ranges from maiden-claimers to graded stakes-caliber runners. The overlays are typically trying something new such as a sprint to route, or turf to dirt. Healthy Addiction returned $92.80 going dirt to turf in 2005; Taste of Paradise won a 2003 main-track stake at $76.80 going sprint to route. Sadler has added a greater number of 2-year-olds to his stable, but they rarely offer value. Maidens at all levels typically need a start. SadlerOs second-time starters are always eligible for dramatic improvement. Sadler trains the potential star turf miler Crossing the Line.
For a guy whose overall win rate hovers at 25 percent, Sherman's win rate at Del Mar has been low -- "only" 15 percent the past five years. But there is more to the story. Sherman remains one of a handful of high-volume trainers who still spring at a price. Almost half Sherman's winners at Del Mar the past five years paid $16 or higher. A $2 win bet on every one of his starters during that time produced a $2.15 return. A split stable between Northern and Southern California allows Sherman to run horses in the right spots, and the sheer size of his outfit (more than 100 starters a month) makes him difficult to categorize. His biggest Del Mar upsets last summer were $33.40 first-time starter Celestial Being and $25 first-off-the-claim Wickersham, who already was in good form.
Consider Sherman to be "live" at Del Mar. He will average one starter per day, and one win per week.
Sise is eager to put the 1-for-24 2006 meet at Del Mar behind him. Attention turns to 2007, and while he declined to be specific, Sise said he has "many" maidens and maiden-claimers to start in addition to his star 3-year-old sprinter, Idiot Proof. More than half his Del Mar starters the past five years were maidens, a category in which Sise is 17 of 87 since 2002.
The 2006 meet was a disaster, as Spawr won just 4 races from 57 starters. He will try to make things right this summer at Del Mar, where he has averaged more than 13 winners a year since 2000.
If Spawr turns it around, it will happen opening week. From 2001 to 2005, Spawr fired at a combined 27 percent opening week (19 for 69). He wins mostly with main-track claimers and layoff horses. Graded stakes-winning sprinter Bordonaro and his promising full brother Furioso Star (eligible for a first-level allowance) are the stable leaders.