By Ed McNamara
If you’re cashing tickets, playing the horses is a joy. If you aren’t, it’s misery.
During an extended slump, it feels as if the universe is conspiring against you. Everything goes wrong. You zig when you should zag. You talk yourself off winners and onto losers. You keep getting split in exactas and are tortured in every photo finish. Even on those rare occasions when your horse finishes first, you don’t bet enough because your confidence level is near zero. We’ve all been through those dark times when we wonder whether they’ll ever end.
After a profitable winter in which I hit a pick 4 and three pick 3s, the racing gods turned on me. Starting in April I gave back all my winnings and much more, and I briefly considered abandoning a 40-year pastime to take up bird watching. Thankfully, my three-month drought ended last Saturday with scores in a pick 3 ($160) and pick 4 ($334.75) at Keeneland, whose slogan is “Racing as It Was Meant to Be.” Finally, for me it was “Horseplaying as It Was Meant to Be.”
I hope you got the money, too, with my suggested pick 4 play ($40.50 on a 50-cent base bet). From my couch on Long Island I watched with delight as Leinster ($22.40, Shakertown Stakes), Speech ($10, Ashland), Rushing Fall ($3.60, Jenny Wiley) and Art Collector ($6.60, Blue Grass) cooperated with me to produce a $334.75 payoff. I bless their names and wish them well forever.
It was glorious to be a prophet turning a profit. Once again, I felt like I do have a future in the prediction business.
Let’s hope I can produce a few more golden moments at Saratoga, the world’s best extended race meeting. Unfortunately, I won’t be pulling off a pick 4 encore this weekend. The Spa’s first Saturday card came up a bit light, and its two stakes are being run four hours apart. The best I can do with a multiple-race wager is a double starting in the ninth race. As bonus coverage, I offer my take on the best race of the day, Monmouth Park’s Haskell Invitational.
$150,000 National Museum of Racing Hall of Fame Stakes (G2), 1 1/8 miles, turf (race 3)
Decorated Invader (7) is a strong closer and legitimate short-priced favorite in a field of six, but he doesn’t have to win. Negatives: He’s never tried 1 1/8 miles and his best work has come at a mile. Positives: He’s earned two graded-stakes trophies and broke his maiden last year at Saratoga.
His main threat is Gufo (5), winner of four in a row, including two at 9 furlongs. He flew home in 11 1/5 seconds last time out in a minor stakes at Delaware Park. Another potential danger is Domestic Spending (1), a Chad Brown-Irad Ortiz collaboration who rocketed the final quarter in 22 3/5 seconds to improve to 2-for-2. He might be good enough to handle the jump from a first-level allowance.
$80,000 optional claimer, 1 1/16 miles, turf (race 9)
There’s plenty of inside speed (Red Right Hand, Ramsey Solution, Noble Indy) to set up closers Digital Age (7) and Set Piece (6). Digital Age is another Chad-Irad production, which will make him the favorite despite a six-race losing streak dating to May 2019. I prefer Set Piece, who blasted through the final quarter of a mile in 22 2/5 seconds at Churchill Downs to win his U.S. debut in early June for Brad Cox.
Let’s play doubles combining Set Piece and Digital Age with Tonalist’s Shape, Altaf and Crystal Ball.
$350,000 Coaching Club American Oaks (G1), 1 1/8 miles (race 10)
I’m sorry to say this is the weakest Coaching Club American Oaks within memory, and it has to be one of the least impressive fields in its 104 runnings. Its past four winners were standouts Guarana, Monomoy Girl, Abel Tasman and Songbird. This edition has only one graded-stakes winner, Tonalist’s Shape (1), who’s 6-for-7 but hasn’t run outside Florida. She adds blinkers, can lead or stalk, and skipped last weekend’s Ashland Stakes at Keeneland to run here.
I’ll try to fade Tonalist’s Shape with a win bet on Chad Brown’s Altaf (3). She looked like a potential star when she rallied from way back to break her maiden by 5½ lengths in late May at Churchill. I’ll key Altaf in exacta boxes with Tonalist’s Shape and the likely main speed, Bob Baffert’s Crystal Ball (5), a maiden winner by 6¼ lengths at Santa Anita.
Monmouth Park: $1 million Haskell Stakes (G1), 1 1/8 miles
What usually serves as a seven-figure Travers prep is being run three weeks, not four, before Saratoga’s marquee event. In this virus-plagued year’s scrambled Triple Crown, both became qualifying-points races for the Sept. 5 Kentucky Derby. The Haskell drew two serious colts – Baffert’s Authentic (2) and Todd Pletcher’s Dr Post (1). There’s also three-time stakes also-ran Ny Traffic (7) and four obscure no-hopers.
Baffert owns the Haskell, having won it a record eight times, the last time in 2015 with American Pharoah. Authentic is a very talented goofball whose slow break cost him his preferred front-running spot June 6 in the Santa Anita Derby. He never made the lead and ran second to the very tough Honor A.P.
If Authentic behaves, which is hardly a safe bet, he should go wire to wire. If he has trouble leaving the gate or gets caught in a duel with need-to-lead Ny Traffic, it could play into the hands of Belmont Stakes runner-up Dr Post. He had no chance to catch Tiz the Law that day, but he did run the final eighth in racehorse time (12 seconds). If you want to try to beat Authentic, Dr Post still has upside, and he looks like your only option.
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.