Loser's Lament and
Two handicappers on The Grandstand picked Sarava to win the Belmont Stakes last Saturday: LLL and Jed. Hats off to them. The life of a longshot bettor is by turns ecstatic and torturous, filled with the thrill of victory and the agony of defeat, but a $142.50 mutuel will pay for a lot of future defeat. I�ve considered the Belmont a favorable place for longshot handicapping since I won with Go and Go and Colonial Affair in the early nineties (Sidebar: What is this decade called? The aughts? How can we turn this decade into a gross clich� in the future if we can�t even name it? Please post your thoughts on this crucial subject.), but I didn�t even consider Sarava.
Stakes races, especially major stakes races, are a great source for longshots. Basically, you look for non-publicity horses whose ability is in the same ballpark as the publicity horses, bet them and cross your fingers. It works time after time, as Go and Go and Colonial Affair, and for that matter, War Emblem in the Derby attest.
But frankly, if they were rerunning the Belmont this weekend and I was faced with a horse with Sarava�s past performances again, I still wouldn�t bet him. He hadn�t exhibited the speed and pace figures to be in the same ballpark with War Emblem, Proud Citizen, Medaglia d�Oro and Perfect Drift. His late pace figures may have been good, but any horse can have good late pace figures if they run slow early. His speed figures were improving, but virtually all three-year-olds have improving speed figures at some point in their three-year-old season. I strongly believe in young "could be any kind" horses. By this I mean horses who haven�t given any indication of what the ceiling on their ability is yet. But Sarava had lost three NW1 allowance races in a row. That tends to give a handicapper the idea that a ceiling may exist, and may in fact be kind of low. Also, his come-from-behind style has not been the style that the Belmont favors.
Handicapping is about what does occur, not what one thinks should occur. Sarava could be included in the 20% of races where stuff just happens. But he did compete with those horses and beat them, fair and square. In fact, he held off Medaglia d�Oro very nicely in the stretch. As a handicapper, you�re always guessing just how much gas is in each horse�s tank. Is it the standard cup-of-gas, is it only four ounces, or has it been super-sized to 12 ounces? Sarava�s gas tank was fuller than I, or just about anybody except Jed and LLL, realized. Big enough to win the Belmont.
In retrospect, looking for mistakes in my handicapping, you could argue that his 14Apr02 and 27Apr02 NW1 losses were both on sloppy tracks, and could be thrown out. Okay, with them out, you�ve got a more reasonable past performance. Sarava ships to this county, wins a MSW, comes in a close second in a NW1 allowance, lays off, and after a couple of races in unfavorable conditions, convincingly wins a minor stakes. That�s the description of a horse I could bet as a longshot, especially at 70/1. Combine that with War Emblem�s trouble, a reasonable amount of contention for the lead, and the long distance, and you have a setup for a come-from-behinder.
I agree with Andy Beyer that War Emblem had his chance, and didn�t measure up to what it takes to be a triple crown winner. Between the stumble at the start and Espinoza�s water-skiing on the backstretch, it�s not surprising he gave up. The Preakness probably took more out of him than most realized. However, true class would have shown more. I think he�s a very fine horse, but not a champion for the ages. But he was good enough to make my triple crown, if not my Belmont, a profitable experience.
While I�m on the subject of longshots, let me list some of my favorite longshot paradigms (Warning: Handicapping Required):
� Non-publicity horse in a headliner stakes race with ability in the same ballpark as the publicity horses. (Explained above.)
� Early speed horse who has the ability to win off his best race. Form cycles for early speed horses are largely a factor of whether they got an easy early lead or not. If you�re getting good enough odds, and there are three or less early speed horses, you may have a setup for a longshot win. If one or both of your longshot�s early rivals stumbles, encounters trouble, or just doesn�t run well, your puppy may find himself on an easy lead which leads to a boxcar payoff.
� Lone front runner in a turf race. Happens more often than you�d think.
� Ugly horse with one positive that you think will make a difference. Longshots aren�t supposed to look pretty in the pps. If they have just one strong positive, that�s all that�s necessary. Maybe it�s a trainer angle. Maybe it�s a wake-up in its recent workouts. Maybe it�s surprise early speed in its last race. These horses require handicapping judgement, but are a source of bountiful payoffs.
� Overachievers. (Thanks to Dan Mowers for pointing me in this direction.) Add up the odds in all of a horse�s past performances, and divide by the number of pps. For instance, say the sum of a horse�s pp odds is 144.7 over seven races. His average odds would be 144.7 / 7 = 20.6. Roughly (not figuring in track take), a 20/1 horse should win one race in 21, but this horse has won four of seven. That�s my definition of an overachiever. (By the way, these figures are from War Emblem�s pps prior to the Kentucky Derby.) Overachievers aren�t profitable in all cases. But if you track your bets, I think you�ll find that they are consistently profitable in some situations.NC
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