By Ed McNamara
I’ve been a public handicapper for much of the past 40 years. So much in racing has changed since September 1981, when I began my touting career by picking The Meadowlands‘ thoroughbreds for The Record of Hackensack, New Jersey. So much has changed for me, too. I got married, bought two houses, had two kids, became a grandfather and retired from Newsday after 43 years as a newspaperman.
I covered 27 consecutive Triple Crowns, was an espn.com columnist for 11 years, and visited 116 tracks on four continents. I cashed tickets on a half-dozen 50-1 winners, including 65-1 shot Country House in the 2019 Kentucky Derby. I won three writing awards.
You may say, “Well, isn’t that an impressive resume, Eddie boy, but what have you done for me lately? Are you a better picker than you were way back in the day? Has all that experience made you a pari-mutuel guru? Be honest.”
Uh, well, I know a lot more about the game, but I have to admit that cashing tickets isn’t any easier at 71 than it was at 31. It’s not hard to identify the leading contenders in a race, but that first step doesn’t necessarily lead to profits. Handicapping is far easier than betting a race correctly. Sometimes you have to abandon your short-priced top pick and key on your second choice, which was the way to go Sunday at Santa Anita.
Three of my column’s No. 2 choices won at juicy prices — Bob and Jackie ($12, San Gabriel Stakes), Express Train ($16.60, San Antonio) and Kalypso ($19.60, La Brea) — and if you bet them, you blessed my name. Bob and Jackie topped a $22 exacta and linked with Express Train for an $87.60 double. Like Bob and Jackie, who nosed out 4-5 shot Friars Road, Express Train nosed 1-5 “lock” Hot Rod Charlie, and that exacta paid $24.80.
Besides predicting that Friars Road and Hot Rod Charlie would finish first, I also put Bob Baffert’s odds-on Private Mission on top in the La Brea, which Kalypso, the “other Baffert,” dominated while her stablemate came in next to last. So once in a great while, even when you’re wrong, everything turns out right. But no matter how long you’ve been making short-term equine investments, you never can tell.
This Saturday it’s back to Santa Anita for four graded stakes. Will my No. 1 picks win, and my No. 2 selections fail to fire this time? Will I leave out any horses who will excel? I can’t say. As always, it’s your move.
$250,000 Joe Hernandez (G2), 6 1/2 furlongs, turf, 4-year-olds and up
This stakes honors the man who called 15,587 consecutive races at Santa Anita, from its opening on Christmas Day 1934 until he fainted at the microphone on Jan. 27, 1972. Six days later, Joe Hernandez died. The Original Voice of The Great Race Place was 62.
Races on the hillside turf course can be tricky to ride and predict. Commander (5) has two wins over it and is 5-for-6 in the money going down the incline. Of his six opponents, only Beer Can Man (1) has run on it (second in an ungraded stakes). Deep closer Chewing Gum (3) is in a 1-for-16 slump but was competitive against better fields than this one.
$100,000 Sham Stakes (G3), 1 1/16 miles, 3-year-olds
In a shocker, Baffert has a lightly raced stakes winner who’ll be favored on the day he turns 3. Rockefeller (4) is 2-for-3, losing only to Breeders’ Cup Juvenile hero Corniche, his stablemate and the likely 2-year-old male champion.
Mackinnon (1) is 3-for-5 on grass, and despite a rough trip he missed by only 1 3/4 lengths when third to Juvenile Turf star Modern Games. Forgive his fourth-place finish in his only dirt try, at 4 1/2 furlongs in his career debut. He’s been working very well on Santa Anita’s main track, and don’t be surprised if he runs big.
There was a little buzz about deep closer Oviatt Class (2) before the Juvenile, in which he was a distant fifth after a bad start and traffic trouble.
$100,000 Robert J. Frankel (G3), 1 1/8 miles, turf, fillies and mares 4 and up
Bobby Frankel (1941-2009) was one of the greatest trainers of all time, and his touch with female turfers was unmatched.
Defending champ Mucho Unusual (2) was first or second in six of her last seven on grass, with her only dud (12th) in the 2020 Breeders’ Cup Filly and Mare Turf. Her main rival is Luck (7), turning back from narrow stakes losses at 1 1/4 and 1 3/8 miles. She won her U.S. debut in a 1 1/16-mile claimer in August, so 9 furlongs should be no problem.
$200,000 La Canada (G3), 1 1/16 miles, fillies and mares 4 and up
Baffert’s As Time Goes By (6) rebounded from a no-chance eighth in the Breeders’ Cup Distaff by wiring the Grade 3 Bayakoa. She beat Moonlight d’Oro (1) by 6 1/4 lengths that day. Baffert’s Velvet Slippers (4) and John Sadler’s Park Avenue (5) could hit the board.
Ed McNamara is an award-winning journalist who has been writing about thoroughbred racing for 35 years. He has handicapped races for ESPN.com, Newsday and The Record of New Jersey. He is the author of “Cajun Racing: From the Bush Tracks to the Triple Crown” and co-author of “The Most Glorious Crown,” a chronicle of the first 12 Triple Crown champions.