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November-04-2006,
Racing -- As Always -- For The Cash...By Nelson Lardner

Do nine-figure pari-mutuel handles on a single card impress you? They do, me. The Breeders' Cup is big, big business. Last year's card accounted for more than $122,000,000 going through the machines -- and this season's Breeders' Cup program is markedly more attractive than last year's show at Belmont Park.

Thoroughbred racing's World Series (currently a one-day affair -- but I can envision expansion to a full weekend, with five or six more Cup races thrown into the mix, resulting in TWO spectacular cards) and Churchill Downs are a happy marriage. Along with Belmont, the Kentucky Derby's annual setting are the two fairest Breeders' Cup venues. While pleasant, California and Florida are too warm to be fair to the European competitors -- though I will note that Florida's anything but a near-term Cup contender in any event, since Frank Stronach knocked down the only Sunshine State grandstand big enough to present the event.

Churchill looks good. I took in most of the day, Friday, in the Turf Club, shielded from the crisp weather. Many stars were out, though the bulk of the serious industry players were largely late-arriving, thus avoiding the first eight races on the card . . . wholly without distinction; the fans deserved better. Speed was coming back on the dirt, and midtrack appeared to be where you wanted to be.

Much of how the big day goes down is closely related to how racing's biggest stars from out of town perform in what for most of them will be their first encounter with Churchill Downs' main track. Kentucky Derby history is replete with examples of hotshot invaders who couldn't carry their Florida/California/New York dirt form over to Louisville. Churchill's dirt has long been regarded as one of the "cuppiest" in major racing. For those not hip to the jive, a "cuppy" track is a dry and loose racing surface which breaks out from under a horse's hooves. Constant watering of a dry strip is required to minimize the effects, especially on windy days.

Many a Derby winner was the horse who most-benefitted from the combination of entering his peak form cycle upon arrival, and taking to the quirky racing surface in a big way. It's also notable that the vast majority of modern Derby winners have a detectable, tangible representation of turf breeding within their immediate pedigrees. Also, note: due to basic climate factors (the cooler, breezier weather), Churchill's main surface is less speed-favoring during the fall meeting than it is in the spring. And if history is any guide, I'll be very surprised if the rail winds up being the place to be on Saturday afternoon.

Add track considerations to the mass of high-deviation variables involved in evaluating a card such as this -- most notable the mass invasion of horses from wildly-diverse racing centers, both here and abroad -- and you'll wholly understand like a day such as this is a professionals' delight. The wisest of the wise guys -- whose names you'll NEVER hear in the general media (and, no, I don't claim to be one) -- are fully tuned in to the insiders' network, and stay up to speed when the heat's on. Racing remains one game where the informed veteran of high-level capability has a pronounced edge -- so long as they maintain sustained focus and maintain sufficient energy levels to make sharp choices with positive expectations, under extreme time pressure.

Don't get seduced by national media figures' selections on this day. I'll give ESPN a first-time pass in their BC debut, pending further enlightenment re just how the Worldwide Leader is going to perform in this first try out of the box with this event -- but the best-known of the national print racing specialists have wretched histories in successfully projecting worthwhile winners in this event (an observation which also holds true for the Triple Crown). Some of the DRF's local specialists have enviable track records at their regional bailiwicks -- Dave Litfin, Brad Free, Byron King, and Steve Klein come immediately to mind, and there are others -- but the nationals, on the biggest stages, are another story.

An aside to lottery players: gimmick wagers on this day of racing can and will pay lucratively. We're not talking state-lottery multi-millions, but we are talking about bets actually offering better chances of winning than the state- sanctioned ping-pong ball nonsense. Breeders' Cup Pick-3s have paid SIX FIGURES on a handful of occasions, and tris and supers can be enormously rewarding in these big fields if you can project which races will see the favorite(s) fail to hit the board. State lotteries -- taxes on the stupid -- take 50% off the top. Most racing gimmicks rake off half that . . . or even less, with the bonus of a much more aesthetic gamble than following the bouncing balls.

Inside The Pylons isn't wrong . . .picking individual horses to win on this day is harshly demanding. But it's one of the great gimmick bet days on the calender. Even if you don't love a favorite, but want to buy insurance against him, flat-betting combinations in Pic-3s while using your feared favorite -- and your isolated live longshots -- does the trick.

Some projections? Why not? It's part of the fun. Handicapping is best executed in conjunction with evaluation of the prevailing odds, and the offshores' offerings on various entrants provide excellent indicators of Saturday's likely tote prices, permittingus to make some preliminary value judgments.

Ouija Board is an absolute monster, and will be hell to beat in the filly and mare turf (race 5, on your program). The French filly Satwa Queen is coming up to the race exactly the right way and could hook up for a nice gimmick, with our top choice.

Our wildest longshot anticipations come in the six-furlong Sprint(race 6). I've seen all of Henny Hughes' races. He's lightning-quick, with more gears than a Maserati. But expect him to get hooked early by California invader Bordonaro, to the detriment of both. Four-or-five-horse exacta/trifecta boxes -- leaving those two OUT -- could be enormous, and I'd look to use Bob Baffert's Too Much Bling prominently in any such excursions.

If Bernardini, the huge favorite in the $5,000,000 mile-and-a-quarter classic, can prevail, he'll have stamped himself as one of the great 3-year-olds of our age. He also figures odds-on, and like most handicapping contrarian value-seekers, will look to beat him. From among Premium Tap, Lawyer Ron, Perfect Drift, Invasor and Sun King, the killer exacta/tri box could emerge. Nobody's perfect. Reach for the stars.

Nelson Lardner
MajorWager.com



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