I saw something this weekend that gave me a case of deja-vu. It’s something that has relevance to handicapping in general…and also to contest play.
The vast majority of contests this past Saturday — regardless of contest site — utilized the Travers as one of its mandatory races. That’s no surprise because most two-turn, Grade I races run on a Saturday or Sunday wind up being included in contest race menus.
On paper, the Travers was a race with many legitimate contenders — two of which were speedy sorts trained by Bob Baffert, Arrogate and American Freedom, who departed from the two inside posts in the field of 13.
Most of the conventional wisdom I read in the media and on Twitter held that a) Baffert sure was unlucky with the draw and b) it would be interesting to see how they were positioned because their respective running styles didn’t figure to complement each other.
I actually thought the draw might be okay. Here is what I tweeted last Thursday.
You know how the Travers ended. If you haven’t seen a replay, watch it here…and watch how the two Baffert runners are positioned during the race.
American Freedom broke sharpest. Rafael Bejarano then floated American Freedom out to about the four path, which did two things: it gave Arrogate the opportunity to cut the corner and maintain the fence; and it pushed would-be speed threats (most notably the outside starting Laoban) very wide around the first turn to the point where Laoban had no real chance to clear the field. In fact, once Laoban used himself to get into second, Bejarano seemed to say “Enough of that” and used American Freedom approaching the end of the first turn to reclaim second so that HE would be the one “pressuring” Arrogate and not some third-party.
The two Baffert runners effectively utilized their gate speed to build a two-horse “Baffert Wall” around the first turn and make opponents go around or through them. Meanwhile any pressure on the leader would be friendly pressure, not true throat-latch pressure.
Obviously Arrogate ran an otherworldly race and was going to win the Travers under virtually any circumstances. And Gun Runner had a good trip and could have gone by American Freedom for second if he was good enough, which he wasn’t. Still I thought it interesting how Baffert (a former jockey) had his two horses positioned. It reminded me of…
…this year’s Belmont Stakes!
You’ll recall that Todd Pletcher had two prominent-early runners in Destin (post 2) and Stradivari (post 5). Plus there was WinStar-owned Gettysburg, who Pletcher had trained prior to the Belmont but had just been transferred to Steve Asmussen to serve as a rabbit for WinStar stablemate (and eventual Belmont winner) Creator. Keeping an eye on Gettysburg, Destin and Stradivari, watch how this race unfolds:
Belmont Stakes: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=PKxmvnqkXE4
What’s better than a two-horse wall? A three-horse wall! The entire free world knew that Gettysburg only had one job — to make the lead. But Pletcher (one of the sharpest race tacticians of any trainer I’ve ever seen) also knew exactly what kind of early speed Gettysburg had (fast enough, but not blazing fast). By granting Gettysburg the lead, then having Destin and Stradivari assume the two-path and three-path positions, respectively, Pletcher afforded himself a tactical advantage in a race where his horses were anything but standouts. (Only at Belmont, incidentally, do I think a trainer would attempt to have a horse as the outer marker of a three-horse wall. Elsewhere, the ground loss would be too debilitating.)
It nearly worked for Destin. Stradivari wasn’t enough horse on this day to make a big impact, but Destin was, losing by a dirty nose to Creator. “What about Governor Malibu?” you say? Wouldn’t he have won with a cleaner trip?
Ah but therein lies one of the fringe benefits of the wall. If one of your horses can’t continue on in the stretch due to the strains of the tactical ride, he effectively becomes a staggering, sometimes-weaving “blocker” down the stretch, running interference for his partner. That’s exactly what Gettysburg did to Governor Malibu. Technically speaking, Gettysburg wasn’t a Pletcher horse in this race, but he sort of was given the way Pletcher seemingly plotted out the race. And if you watch Stradivari down the stretch, you’ll see that he nearly impeded Creator at the same time that Gettysburg was doing his number on Governor Malibu.
I’ll leave you with one final example. Have a look at the 2015 Donn Handicap which featured a 4-5 favorite in Lea, and a pair of Pletchers — Constitution and Commissioner — who broke from the inside two stalls.
2015 Donn: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=55vDhKsUz08
The ride on Commissioner is terrific. It kept Lea boxed up inside as long as possible while forcing all other non-Pletchers to go wide (no easy feat going two turns at Gulfstream). You probably saw Rosario have to steady Lea twice as they straightened for home. The inability to get clear earlier may have cost Lea the race.
Side note: The more I watch these kinds of races, it seems to me as if the “two-path” rider is sort of the quarterback. The rider on the lead just goes along and takes his cue from his partner outside of him. The two-path guy eases out if need be or nudges forward and prompts the pacesetter to go a little faster if that’s what it takes to ensure that the early leader takes friendly, “you-can-still-have-a-fairly-clear-lead” fire and not enemy fire.
In this era of supertrainers who have 70-120 high-quality horses in their barns, I’m betting we see another “Wall race” sooner rather than later.
Mind you, even if you’re with me all the way on this, none of this will ever point out a sure winner. Even if you suspect one of these scenarios is brewing, you still have to determine which of the two (or more) teammates will benefit the most. But I hope you find this as food for thought when you see this potential situation pop up in the future. It’s another way of looking at a big race, and it just might lead you to an overlaid contender — one that can make all the difference in a Saturday contest.