Monday, December 9, 2013

Perception is perception, Reality is reality. Handicap Accordingly.

Gritty Honor Code Battles Back to Win Remsen Stakes

That was the headline on the Paulick Report article a few hours after the race. It was the prevailing opinion of most. Not me though. I didn't see it that way at all.
And my bet is that neither did Honor Code's trainer or jockey. They know better. Even if they didn't say so.
Before the Remsen, there were two fan factions that I noticed distinctly. They can be summarized as follows.

1) Honor Code was a lock and possibly the next great horse who is likely to sweep the Triple Crown next year. These people saw him as unbeatable and the race was for second. You see this sort of fan hype all the time. Until the horse bombs out.


2) Cairo Prince was the type of horse who just gets better, was underrated at the moment and he would step up and blow right by Honor Code.
As usual, the truth lies somewhere in between and below both of those expectations. In other words....REALITY.

Here is how I saw the race. The actual race. Not really my perception. Mostly my view of the facts based on 30 years of handicapping and race viewing experience, 25 years of owning horses and 10 years of training and grooming horses every day until I decided I didn't want to do it anymore.

Honor Code got bumped or stumbled a touch coming out. But he was right into the pocket. The rest floated out there and had no intention of contesting the pace. So, a longshot who was not going to be there at the end either way cut the fractions and went pedestrian speed. 
Castellano therefore had no choice but to angle out of the pocket because of that slow pace and get in position to take the lead before he got trapped in. Which is exactly what he did when Honor Code was told to do so. On his back, Cairo Prince was in perfect position, getting the trip, while Wicked Strong stayed in but was well within range and was by no means trapped. He angled out when he wanted to make his bid. He could have moved earlier. His jockey didn't want to.
The top of the stretch came, Honor Code was rolling now. Many have mentioned that the race was a sprint from the half on. It was. So, Honor Code was making his run. There were no tactics at this point. The one that ran the fastest from the half on was going to win. Honor Code started that full out run with the advantage. He had the lead. A clear lead.

“That was a tough beat. The winner is a good horse, but that was a tough one. I thought we had it won.”

-Kiaran McLaughlin, trainer of Cairo Prince

As they started to make their way down the stretch, it was clear that Cairo Prince had way more left than Honor Code, who was passed easily. Honor Code either couldn't or wouldn't fight him off. Cairo Prince looked to be an easy winner. Honor Code was beat. 
But then as Cairo Prince was going by Honor Code he started to bear in and was straightened up, and for whatever reason, he stopped running. When that happened, he brought Honor Code back to him. If Honor Code had grit, he never would have let Cairo Prince head him. If Cairo Prince had the speed for the distance off a very easy trip and had kept running straight he would have won by two or three lengths under very little urging. That didn't happen. Cairo Prince lost his momentum and stopped running.
Neither horse raced good at all, and in fact, they floated to the wire beside each other. Neither were impressive at all. Unless one or both had an excuse such as a wind or lameness issue, I am not impressed at all. The fact that they went a fast last 1/8th means little when they walked most of the race to the top of the stretch. They both had virtually the same trip and ran the same fractions.
Wicked Strong raced good, but maybe he wants more distance. Maybe. He still ran 3rd when he had a clear shot as well.
That is the race that happened. Perception is perception, reality is reality. That is the reality.

If you read the post race comments it is telling. Sure, trainers, jockeys and owners say lots of things they don't mean, don't believe and are told to say (the things they aren't saying to each other in private or thinking to themselves that they don't share with most) but they also say things that tell you why what happened on the racetrack happened. Those are things that fans and bettors don't like to hear, and sometimes even refuse to accept. But they are what happened. Things like,

“"We just said we were going to let him run his race."

That is what Shug said after the race. I believe that to be true. What you have to understand is that the Remsen isn't the ultimate goal. The Derby and the Triple Crown races are. The Remsen is just another step on that ladder.
So that is what they did. They let him run his race and they wanted to see what they had. Despite what they say otherwise, they could not have been happy with the way he was passed off a very easy trip.
Perception is something that people do when then they don't actually do it or know how to do it. It is an educated guess. or an uneducated guess.
Reality is what people who actually do it know. They know.
Trainers say what they will say. but what they actually know is a completely different thing.
Cam Fella is acknowledged as one of the greatest standardbred horses to ever race. He was super tough to beat, and in fact won his last 28 races in a row. Yes, 28 races in a row against the best horses that were out there, week in, week out. Nobody doubts how gritty and tough he was. But, on the night of one of his most memorable wins, was he tough or just lucky to meet a horse who was fast but not tough at all? 
Watch the race below.

Did Cam Fella come back on and show his grit? Or did It's Fritz stop? You tell me.
But first, watch the driver on Its Fritz. All the time he was sitting second to Cam Fella he kept looking over his shoulder, repeatedly. Why? Because he wanted to make sure he didn't get trapped in. But, he knew that he should save the horse as much as he can. Why? Because he knows the horse needs a trip and can't go all the way to the wire with those types if he moves too early. Which he did. He had no choice. The guy in third was clearly edging out and Its Fritz had no choice but to go early or take his chances of getting trapped. 
So, he went. But even after he opened up two or three lengths in the deep stretch and appeared to have it locked up, the driver was nervous. Cam Fella had been put away, but still the driver kept looking back to see how close it was. 
Then, It's Fritz stopped, kind of like Cairo Prince did. Cam Fella didn't show any grit. Not that night. He did many times in his career but not on this night. He simply passed a horse who was completely spent and moved earlier than he was capable of moving. It is easy to see this, because Its Fritz didn't even hold on for second and the fourth horse almost caught him as well. 
If you want to see what grit and toughness really look like, watch a horse like Private Zone.

"Private Zone comes back. A courageous victor here."

-Tom Durkin.

You're darn right. When Justin Phillip came to him and looked like he was going by, Private Zone never let him get by. He got a head in front, but he kept fighting and fought him off. That is grit.
But it wasn't the first time Private Zone had done that. He did the exact same thing in the Pirates Bounty at Delmar. I couldn't find the video of that race, although I know it is out there because I have seen it posted. Private Zone did the exact same thing when he refused to be passed even though he had a very tough trip. After a poor effort in the Breeders Cup when he didn't get the kind of trip he liked, Private Zone came right back on the same card as the Remsen and raced a super 2nd to Flat Out in the Cigar Mile, holding on gamely to beat all but the winner. That is grit and toughness. 

My point?
Horses who are gritty and tough might get headed, but they never get fully passed. If they get fully passed, they aren't gritty..or ...they are done and can't muster the effort--no matter how much grit--to withstand. Cam Fella was certainly gritty, but on that night he just didn't have it. Lucky for him, It's Fritz was a one trick pony who had one big run in him and once that was done, he was done. Cam Fella kept going the same speed, just as Honor Code did and that was good enough for a win. Not a gritty win though. A win of attrition. 
I watched many of Its Fritz's foals race and the majority of them raced just like him. Go to the front, one big burst and hold on for dear life. They are what they are.

That is much different than letting a horse go earlier in the race and then coming on again tactically to take him when you want to. But--and this is an absolute--when a horse begins his move and takes the lead, is driving and heading for the win--in the stretch--and he gets headed, we find out how much grit he has. Some repel the challenge, like Private Zone did in the Vosburgh......but if your horse gets completely passed while in a full stretch drive to the point he is at least a length behind--like Cam Fella did and Honor Code did-- then the only way he wins is if something happens to the horse that passed him. It isn't about grit anymore. It is about luck or another horse failing.
As for Cairo Prince, he is very young and green. Listen again to what his jockey Luis Saez said about him.
 “[When he made the lead], he tried to wait on the other horse. Last time [in the G2 Nashua], he took the lead and opened up five, then stopped a little bit. Today he was doing the same. The other horse, he beat me on the wire.”

You have now read two comments from the connections of Cairo Prince. While not knocking Honor Code, neither mentioned anything about grit. 
Because he is green, that can be trained out of Cairo Prince. If that is in fact the case. If he just can't run a mile and a quarter at that level, then that is different. We will probably find that out in February or March (if he lasts that long) when he meets others who can.
But either way, in this race (The Remsen) Cairo Prince passed Honor Code fairly easily, then was bearing in and starting to ease up and Honor Code simply kept going the same speed. The fact that Honor Code came back on and beat Cairo Prince says something about Cairo Prince and Honor Code.
Honor Code made his statement when he got an easy trip and made an easy lead only to be passed midstretch without a fight. That is what I saw. Not perceived. Watch the race. That is what happened. No matter what the trainers or jockeys say in public, that is exactly what happened. 
As mentioned, it either means Cairo Prince is green, lacks desire to win or that he can't go the distance. The jury is out on him for now. 
What happened afterwards can be debated, but that doesn't have anything to do with grit. If Honor Code had grit, and enough to beat Cairo Prince (as he ended up doing) then he would have fought him off when he came to him midstretch. He didn't. It is as simple as that. I didn't see any grit. I saw one horse stopping or easing up while the other one just kept going the same speed.
In fact, if they ran another quarter of a mile, the 3rd horse, Wicked Strong would have passed them both. He is the one to watch going forward. At this point, if better horses come along, all 3 would likely be passed easily. 

Anyone who trains, rides and drives horses knows that.

The day before the Remsen and Cigar Mile, a horse named Doubledown Gass raced at Woodbine and got beat. But, he raced the only way he can to be at his best, at this point in his career anyway. 
He went as fast as he could with little rating until he ran out of gas. He had used that tactic a few times with mostly success. He just isn't the type of horse that likes to follow others.
That is the reason that some horses you don't sit a trip. They like to lead and will only try if they are leading.
His owner/trainer/breeder and driver Reg Gassien knows that. He has been around long enough and he would likely get him a trip if he thought the horse would benefit from it.

Long ago, Gassien was known as "The Gas Man" when he was a regular driver on the Woodbine/Mohawk circuit. In those days it was the Greenwood/Mohawk circuit and he was one of the top 5 drivers for many years. He knows better than to try and wire the field and bottom them out every time, unless he knows he has no choice but to do that. 
The start before the one below that I am going to post the horse was rank and hard to handle. So, the next start, he just opened up as much daylight as he could and tried to hang on, which he did. He had repeated that tactic just about every time since. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn't. But he knows there is no alternative.

"He's going as far and as fast as he can on the lead."

-Ken Middleton.

On that lead, he was very gritty and barely got nailed on the wire. If he had saved ground or rated him would he have lasted? Likely not. He tried that tactic later and he was easily passed by weaker horses. 

Cairo Prince and Honor Code both got perfect rides and either of them should have won going away if they were any good. They didn't and they hit the wire together after exchanging leads. It certainly wasn't the jockeys faults. Anyone who says otherwise wasn't watching the race. I heard a lot of that jockey blaming for both of them racing poorly. I can't see how anyone would ride either of those horses differently. They both had easy trips and were in perfect position to win. That is all you can ask of any jockey or driver.
So, what does this all mean to the handicapper? Well, the prevailing opinion is that both of them raced very good. Cairo Prince eased up, but he ran a big race. Honor Code was gritty and came back on to prevail. They will both be overbet the next time or two because of that perception.

Much the same way Orb was after the Kentucky Derby when everyone thought he ran a huge race. Then, after the Preakness they blamed the jockey for a poor ride when he saved him. Same thing he did in the Derby, except it worked that day and it didn't in the Preakness when he lost momentum. The jockey knows he had to. Orb didn't have enough to win on his own, and in fact didn't win a race after the Derby with all sorts of trips.

He was consistently outrun and overbet because of the incorrect perception on what he did on Derby day. He ran basically the same race 3 times. Once it worked, once it didn't, and the third time he was outrun. He continued to do that until everyone figured out he was just a good horse in a so so crop, not a great horse in a good crop.
The only excuse I would give Honor Code was if he had a wind issue, either caused by bleeding or choking or something like that. I didn't hear any mention of that, but that doesn't mean it wasn't happening. That is the kind of information that trainers don't share with the public. They go and get it fixed if it is the case, and then if the horse runs way better the next time, they tell you that was the reason. Afterwards.
Did that happen in this case? I don't know. Maybe. We can never know that unless somebody tells us. 

Until such time, Honor Code (to me) is a nice horse who ran well but didn't show any fight when he was challenged and outstaggered another pretender, both of who look to be horses that won't get the Derby distance at that class level.
If they are both running on Derby day, we shall see if I am right.

 Orb, who bobbled at the start of the race, was placed three wide in fifth place for the first six furlongs of the 1 ¼-mile race and then faded. He was beaten 22 ¼ lengths by winner Ron the Greek.
 After the Derby, Orb progressively disappointed, culminating in his last race, the Jockey Club Gold Cup, where his connections said this publicly:

“Orb seemed to come back fine,” Tenney said. “He cooled out fine, and we put him on the van and sent him back to Fair Hill [Md.] last night. Really no excuses we could see.”

No explanation for Orb's poor performance. That is what Shug and his owner said. Publicly. 
Privately, I am sure he told the owners that the horse isn't that good, he got somewhat lucky on Derby Day and there is no point racing him further because he won't be that competitive and will significantly hurt his stallion value. The longer he would have raced, the more he would have taken the lustre off his Derby Crown. 

In spite of his terrible performance in the Jockey Club Gold Cup, they were pointing Orb towards the Cigar Mile, but a few weeks before, they just decided to retire Orb. Because they know in private what they weren't saying in public. He isn't as good as the hype he created and they better cash in before everyone else figures that out. They will never say that in public. They will say that he would have made a great 4 year old. Which is total bullshit. If he was, they would have kept racing him.

“I thought he worked fine,” said Hall of Fame trainer Shug McGaughey of the Malibu Moon colt, most recently eighth in the Grade 1 Jockey Club Gold Cup on September 28.....
“I’ll make up my mind in a couple of weeks,” said McGaughey. “I’ll just fool with him and see where it takes us.”

Translation: He works good. He seems good, but he races and then he isn't good enough. I am at a loss to explain it other than he just isn't good enough or as good as we thought he was or was going to be. 
He would never say that in public. But retiring him said that for him. 
Before the race, people were saying Honor Code would be too far back. Well, he wasn't this time. He was sitting second, and because of the slow pace, he had to pull out of the pocket. What if he didn't? The leader would have accelerated, the outer flow would have come to him, and Honor Code would have been trapped. Certainly, that wasn't going to happen., The Remsen was a race to see what they had in Honor Code. If he gets trapped in and boxed in, they wouldn't know. So, he pulled. As he should. And he didn't work terribly hard to get to the lead by the top of the stretch. If he was the champ they claim he is, and was, he would have pulled away. He didn't. He was challenged and passed very easily. 

What does all this mean to a handicapper? Well, I would suggest that Honor Code is going to be overbet in his next two starts, because he is now perceived as gritty and likely to get the distance, when I contend he is not that gritty and won't get the distance. For me,  unless he shows otherwise, he is a toss out for the Kentucky Derby, and hence, others are an overlay if you can justify them on their own merits.
I will watch Cairo Prince to see how he responds to getting a lead next time and what the jockey does when he gets it. You can be sure there will be no gearing down or easing up until the race is over. He will be ridden out regardless, to teach the horse he is to keep running until he is told to stop. That is what training is all about. 
Trainers need to be real about what they have. So do owners. And even if fans never will be, if you want to be a successful handicapper, it is a must to be realistic about what happens on the track. If you don't do that, you are giving away value when it is just being handed to you on a silver platter.  
Just like Cairo Prince did in the race.

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