Handicapping Mail Bag (Transylvania, Santa Anita Derby, Polytrack)

Horse racing, by its nature, is a social game. You get together with your friends, you have some food or a beer, you might pool some money for a large pool, and you hope for the best.  In this new world with e-mails and social media, you could be at one track and discussing the races with someone at another.  Whether it's by Twitter (look below) or e-mail (formblogconvention@gmail.com) or by subscribing to posts (also, look below) and commenting (there is a button for that), you can reach out and ask questions.

I don't bite, I've had my shots. :)

Sometimes though, the mailbox gets a little full and that's what happened here. So let's open up the mailbag, the inbox, and answer some questions. Our first one is a handicapping question from Twitter.

Keeneland - - G3 Transylvania Stakes  - - 1 1/16 miles on turf - - post time 5:13 pm ET (Friday April 4)

I'm handicapping this race for turf only, so if it goes off on to the polytrack (we'll talk about that later) you are on your own. But whether firm or soft, the thought stays the same.  (Advance weather calls for an 80% chance of thunderstorms.)

I do think GLOBAL VIEW ran a nice race in the upper crust allowance, second to Bobby's Kitten on Tampa Bay Derby Day.  He goes second off the layoff and did handle turf with give during the Hollywood Turf Festival, too. I also think his 4/1 morning line quote is square; the two horses to the right are going to take a lot of attention off good races at Gulfstream, but I think the time is right to lean against as they were forward on a course that favored being in touch with the leaders, not the "swing wide and close from the parking lot" types.  MEDAL COUNT is a horse who may get bet off his 12/1 morning line, and finally gets back on the turf. He did win a first-level allowance closing at the Gulfstream, then took a bad ride on the Fountain of Youth carousel. Romans has perhaps wanted turf with this one all along, as his first two starts were washed off the grass. PLUEVEN is the "other" Chad Brown horse here, the more favored one being STORMING INTI (who we're trying to beat here).  Even though PLUEVEN has never won beyond seven panels or since being imported to the US, he did chase a quality grass horse in Mr. Speaker and cuts back in distance after sputtering in the Palm Beach.

#9 GLOBAL VIEW (4/1)
#1 MEDAL COUNT (12/1)
#8 PLEUVEN (4/1)

Longshot: Rusty Arnold always wins a race at Keeneland, as he's done so every meet for years.  He comes in to this race with maiden winner #3 WOODFIELD SPRINGS (12/1), who graduated last time with a closing effort on Gulfstream grass. Leparoux maintains the call, and we've seen him do well with closers in the past.  Not often these humans are at these odds, so why not take a swing?

Here's another handicapping question from the tweeties.

Santa Anita Park -- G1 Santa Anita Derby -- 1 1/8 miles on dirt -- post time 6:3o pm ET (Saturday April 5)

First off, have a safe trip to California, Ray.

I've been Mr. Cynical with regard to these three-year-olds, yet I have found myself plunging all-in on the horses lining up for the Arkansas Derby on the 12th.  Not in the case of the Santa Anita Derby, which will be televised live on NBC Sports Network.  It's billed as showdown between Rebel winner HOPPERTUNITY, Lewis winner CANDY BOY, and San Felipe winner CALIFORNIA CHROME.  (There are five other horses, appearing to be extras from the stock race footage on "Horseplayers".)

Derby points came into play in this race, as both HOPPERTUNITY and CALIFORNIA CHROME can both "sandbag" the race, and not give 100%.  They have this luxury, having earned fifty points for winning their last race, a number that all but assures they'll be in the gate for the Kentucky Derby.  The connections of CALIFORNIA CHROME, as well, have not been totally on board with running here.  CANDY BOY does have the top-side breeding but his dam clunked badly at nine panels.

Even though HOPPERTUNITY can sandbag, I don't think anyone else in the field beyond the big three is able to up to the challenge. I'll pick him here and tell you to bet against CALIFORNIA CHROME, as he'll be odds-on as a popular horse. Also with him, sooner or later, the fact his sire never won beyond five and a half furlongs is going to catch up to him.  CANDY BOY gets the mention here, and it is worth noting that the 2-3 runners of the Lewis went 1-2 in the Sunland Derby.



#6 CANDY BOY (9/5)


Longshot: #7 SCHOOLOFHARDKNOCKS (10/1) goes second time around two turns in this spot.  Sure he weakened in the Lewis, but he appears the best of the reminaing five that serve as punching bags for the top three.  Talamo/Hoffmans did hit the board once before recently, and sire Rock Hard Ten is a fine two-turn sire.


A lot of water cooler chat centered on Keeneland's announcement to abandon polytrack for a dirt course, making the spring meet that opens on April 4th (we previewed its opening day feature above) the last on the surface.  I've heard every kind of awful word for polytrack, and some I can't replicate here (this is a family-friendly website). However, I decided to take a different approach on twitter last night.  I did get some nibbles to the original idea "Retweet (RT) if you like polytrack", and this one.  It should be noted that when news broke of the story, social media crackled with a general "woo-hoo" reaction to the days being numbered on polytrack.

First off, polytrack is not dead.  Turfway Park in suburban Cincinnati will keep the surface, as it helps against the nasty cold winters they have in northern Kentucky and also there is still polytrack at my summertime home oval of Arlington Park.

I don't expect Arlington to remove polytrack in the future, not as long as Illinois's ADW situation goes in and out of flux, not with the track preferring to get lights for nighttime racing first, not with it lacking the large money it takes to pull off such a project.  There are supporters of polytrack, citing how it evens out the competition and creates unique betting angles.  And there are the haters like the ones above.  I respect both points of view.

However, polytrack is not going to change the fact that Arlington's main track runners have been average before polytrack (ever since Polar Expedition, it's been Giant Oak and not much more; turf runners like Buck's Boy, Mystery Giver, and Fort Prado have been the name of the game) and have maintained that level since.  Handicapping polytrack in advance is a nightmare because it's very susceptible to moisture, but Hawthorne in March and November is no easier with its transitional stables and changeable weather.

I'm not celebrating the end of polytrack at Keeneland.  I'm not going to say good riddance to it either.  Instead, I'm going to shake my head and wonder why we all threw smoke bombs in crowded rooms when Keeneland's ambience and "racing as it was meant to be" packs the doors and still remains one of the few places with a day-in, day-out on-track experience worth attending and luring from near and far.  (Hey, I'd like to go there.) The fact that people harp on the main track surface shows how much of a nasty wedge issue it has become.  I wish that went away, not the polytrack.

Whether you're heading to the track or the not, you can take "Picks and Ponderings" with you anytime, anywhere. You can get Twitter updates @heylaserbeam for on-the-scene reports on major racedays at Hawthorne Race Course. And you can get "Picks and Ponderings" in your e-mail by typing your email address in the box and clicking "Create Subscription." It's a FREE service, and you'll never get any unwanted spam.



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  • i couldn't agree with you more that all of the bickering about whether poly is the One True Way or a Scourge To Racing is my least favourite thing about the Keeneland announcement. i don't hate it, i don't love it...polytrack exists, and i'm trying to learn to handicap it accordingly since it will be a fact of life at one of the local tracks for a very long time to come.

    as for the arguments being made, i'm more interested in the horse safety argument than any of the others, but think it's open enough to further research and analysis comparing polytrack to similarly recently rebuilt/maintained dirt that all of the serious demonization of dirt seems hyperbolic.

  • In reply to rogueclown:


    I too would like to see rigorous research on safety. However, as long as the pro-synthetic and anti-synthetic camps continue to butt heads, trying to be impartial will be more difficult and you'll be reduced to white noise. =(

  • Reading your comments on the Poly,especially the devisive nature of the debate, reminds me of how baseball is divided into the "pro" DH camp and the "anti" DH camp. Like the DH, Poly was an unnecessary introduction into a sport that didn't need it. It is not needed anywhere, not Turfway or Woodbine even. They both had dirt surfaces long before Poly came along. Finally, the fact that the benefits of Poly are still cloudy after all these years are very telling. Poly was the shiny new gadget that would cure all that ails track surface management but turns out it takes as much work or more, at great expense, wears out and failed catastrophically in the case of Santa Anita -for a questionable gain. It's true I am old school and hated the Poly from day one but I have learned to live with(and handicap)it. What I haven't learned to live with is that some of our best races are run on Poly when historically,year after year after year -for over a hundred years,we were a dirt racing nation. Mom,apple pie and dirt track horseracing.

  • In reply to Bellringerwins:


    One reason I will NEVER refer to a surface as "all weather" is exactly because of the epic fail drainage issues the track had. I see the view point of synthetics as unnecessary when you have years of races on dirt and then whitewash the history book.

    There's nothing wrong with being old school. =)

    I tend to be more ambivalent to the surface itself but I do (as said originally) wish both camps would stop slinging arrows at each other.

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