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Apr 04, 2008

Thru The Binoculars



They should be filming "The Survivor" in Hot Springs, Arkansas.

In three months in Clinton Country, the writer has somehow survived a foot of snow, a foot of rain, thunderstorms on a seeming daily basis, floods, pestilence...and, finally last night, just after Jay Leno...tornadoes.

Ah, but things are about to turn. The forecast for Saturday -- Apple Blossom Handicap and Oaklawn Handicap Day -- is 70 degrees, sunshine, and a fast track -- a fast DIRT track we must remind.

And how bad can this place be when Steve Asmussen -- the conquering hero frrom Dubai -- is spotted hanging out in his shirttails in the Oaklawn Park paddock, sending out winners for Maggi Moss, who, unfortunately is not here.

But what we do have here -- in addition to Super Steve (one of my favorite endorsers) -- is Ginger Punch, the 2007 Breeders' Cup Distaff and Eclipse Award winner. She'll be 3-5 in the Apple Blossom, the best filly/mare race of the year.

Brooklyn Bobby Frankel is not here...but Jose Cuevas, known far and wide as the Exercise Rider for the Stars, is here to tend to Ginger Punch, and you can tell that Jose already has found his niche in the Hot Springs night life.

After the draw on Friday, Jose called Frankel with the news that Ginger Punch drew the one-hole, which is kind of like an EZ Pass because the inside always seems to be the place to be at the Saratoga of the South.

"Perfect," Frankel told Jose, "..the inside is the place to be at Oaklawn."

I'm not sure about the second half of that quote, but no matter. After leading my Oaklawn press notes, the quote managed to lead the sports section of the local newspaper, and was played up in the trades.

And the Oaklawn Handicap is the best race of the season to date in the male handicap division. Four of the seven horses are Grade 1 winners: Buzzards Bay, Circular Quay, Tiago and Heatseeker, who will be favored as the result of winning the Santa Anita Handicap last month.

One good thing about the day is that old buddy Mike Smith will be in town to ride Tiago and Zenyetta (in the Apple Blossom).

I reached Mike at his California bachelor pad this week, and asked him to be my guest at my seminar on Saturday morning -- at 11:30 at Players' Restaurant if you're in the neighborhood.

And Mike, although distracted chasing his 2-year-old Italian greyhound around his condo, agreed to do it.

Incidentally, the greyhound is named (what else?) Azeri!
Back in the '80s and '90s, it was the Mike and Jerry Show in New York...and I had the pleasure of covering every moment for the New York Post and Daily Racing Form.

Mike was a free spirit in those days, and -- talking about survivors -- he managed to survive spills that crushed virtually every bone in his body.

Amazing that he found time to win 10 Breeders' Cup races, a Kentucky Derby, two Eclipse Awards, 15 New York titles, and, in one year alone (1994), he won 20 Grade Ones and a then-record 68 stakes!

And in 2003, he was inducted into the Hall of Fame.

Looking ahead to Sunday, Eight Belles will face Pure Clan in the Fantasy Stakes.

Now, here's the deal.

If Eight Belles takes care of business -- and there is no doubt she will -- then there is a very good chance her connections will point her for the Kentucky Derby.

This is why I find it so surprising that the folks in charge of the Churchill Downs' Future Book  still evidently have never heard of Eight Belles. The proof is that she is not included in the 23-horse body of the current Pool 3.

If you want to bet Eight Belles, you can get 7-1 on her in the Kentucky Oaks' Future Book, but you can safely tear up those tickets the day Messrs. Porter and Jones decide on the Derby.

There are three major 3-year-old races to be run on Saturday, and, having safely survived the tornados, I would like to take this opportunity to check some angles.

The Wood Memorial presents a major challenge to players because no one can safely predict which War Pass will show up?

I would think that folks with long memories will pound War Pass at the mutuels. But that doesn't make him a winner. 

Not being a fight maven, I need some help here. What did Iron Mike do the next fight after he got whacked by Buster Douglas?

Trainer Zito says War Pass is training just great since the Tampa debacle. What else is Saint Nick going to say?

Hedging in the gimmicks may be the way to go.

Trainer Pletcher meanwhile will be at Aqueduct to saddle Texas Wildcatter and Spurrier in the Wood, rather than journey to Oaklawn for Circular Quay and Fairbanks.

(Barry Irwin, the owner of Fairbanks, won't even be in Hot Springs, one of his favorite towns. He's in South Africa looking to buy more Grade 1 winners).

The Toddster seems to be having a lean year with his 3-year-olds, and it's not necessarily a good thing that he's already blaming the poor jockeys. 

Texas Wildcatter presumably ran a huge race in the foggy Gotham under jockey Arroyo, but, sure 'nuff, jockey Coa gets the mount for the Wood.

As for Spurrier, he has moved up in blinks, and his owners -- like the owners of Eight Belles and Proud Spell -- coughed up the 6K to supplement him to the Triple Crown.

The Santa Anita Derby is being billed as a rematch between Colonel John and El Gato Malo, who finished one-two in that order a month back in the Sham Stakes.

Based on that race, Colonel John will be favored in the Santa Anita Derby, but, if you look closely at the Sham, you will notice that El Gato Malo was trapped down on the rail until the head of the stretch, and lost ground when finally able to angle out.

With a better trip El Gato Malo may have won. But we'll never know? What we do know is that El Gato Malo gets another chance in the Santa Anita Derby, and, if he does win, he'll go to the Kentucky Derby no worse than fourth or fifth choice.

And can you imagine the bedlam in the winner's circle if El Gato Malo pulls off the Derby. After all, he is owned by the West Point syndicate.

Then what about Bob Black Jack?

After his third-place finish in the San Felipe, his connections booked a plane for a trip to the Arkansas Derby at Oaklawn. But when they were informed they BBJ may get squeezed out of the Arkansas Derby because of a lack of earnings, they called an audible, and decided to stay home for the
Santa Anita Derby.

Too bad because I was looking forward to seeing how far the Oaklawn strip would carry him.

Needless to say, if Bob Black Jack gets loose on the lead in the Santa Anita Derby...

Yankee Bravo is worth a look if, for no other reason than he gets a break in post position. He ran a credible race behind Pyro from an extreme outside post in the Louisiana Derby. Now he gets the rail Saturday.

Too bad Joe Bravo doesn't rider Yankee Bravo.

No, Jersey Joe will be on the south side of Chicago.Saturday to ride Atoned for Cot Campbell and the Toddster in the Illinois Derby.

And Atoned, based on his terrific second at Tampa, has a puncher's chance to KO Denis of Cork, who will be odds-on. 

What gives with Denis of Cork?

In the capable hands of trainer David Carroll, Denis is unbeaten in three starts, including a big-number score in the Southwest Stakes back in February at Oaklawn. Sierra Sunset, the runnerup in that race, came back to win the Rebel, and Liberty Bull came out of that race to win the $500,000 Sunland Derby.

As for Denis, he was supposed to run in the Rebel, but the owners squashed those plans. Then he was supposed to go to the Lane's End, but that idea was scrapped. Maybe it was the synthetic surface.

Then Denis was supposed to go to the Wood, but when the cost became excessive, the owners decided a van ride to Chicago was the way to go.

So Denis is two months from a race, and what's more, along the way, they somehow managed to lose jockey Albarado.

Robby will be at Keeneland Saturday to ride the 3-year-old filly Country Star for Frankel so jockey Leparoux, who is having an off-year, gets the call.

This will be a make or break weekend for Leparoux. After Denis of Cork (and he better win that one!), he goes to Hot Springs for Pure Clan in the Fantasy. One mistake there, and you know jockey Prado is waiting in the wings.

To get Saturday, April 5th's 3 major Derby Prep races, The Illinois Derby from Hawthorne, The Santa Anita Derby, and The Wood Memorial from my home track of Aqueduct,
Click Here. Or better yet, Get all 15 Major Derby Prep races, including select full cards, the Churchill Downs Derby Day Full Card including the 1-2-3-4 order of finish in the Kentucky Derby for one low price of only $50, Click Here!

Let's take a look at Churchill Downs with an eye on one particular "elvauation approach," handicapping the trainer

The Trainers - One of the toughest things I had to learn as a handicapper was that you can't just try to beat the favorite for the sake of beating the favorite, which is why understanding that top trainers at any given race track are on top year after year for a reason and on most often occasions, saddle the favorite. These conditioners are the most talented, therefore get the best owners and the best horses, and have the money to fund the best operation. This is why knowing who they are and understanding the impact they have on any given race is important. But knowing who they are and what their true percentages and value can mean to evaluating an individual race are of utmost importance, because it is the numbers within the numbers that determines the bottom line.

First, some of those numbers.

  • The top seven trainers at the fall 2007 meet ran 324 horses and amassed a 64-41-41 mark.

  • Among the top seven were names you'd expect...Asmussen, Romans, Pletcher, Mott and McPeek. Collectively the group won 19.7 percent of their starts and hit the board at a 45 percent clip.

  • The next thirteen trainers turned in a 311-55-37-40 resume. Yes it took more trainers to win fewer races, but the telling percentages are 17.1 for a win mark and a 42.4 on the board percentage, which are more than competitive with the top seven because the public is much more likely to bet blind on Asmussen, Romans, Pletcher, Mott and McPeek than they are on trainers such as Cody Autrey (17-5-3-1), Neil Howard (12-5-0-2), Jeff Talley (14-4-2-4) and Forrest Kaelin (16-4-1-0)...each of whom had a higher win percentage at the meet than the five luminaries mentioned above. And when you compound those higher percentage results with a higher R.O.I. simply because the lesser known trainers don't get that "careless public money" which usually goes to the bigger names, you have an exponential factor for your bottom line.

  • In fact, Michael Maker (32-8-4-1) and Ian Wilkes (25-7-4-1), who joined the other five in the top seven at the fall meet, had the two highest win percentages of that group, and while both are well known among sharp handicappers, the average post time odds of their horses were significantly higher than Asmussen, Romans, Pletcher and Mott while Ken McPeek's were more or less even. 

  • Furthermore, the trainers mentioned above are not one time visitors to Churchill. Nor are they are not one-hit-wonders, which means you have a starting point from which to begin the upcoming Churchill Downs meet.

But which trainers, either well-known or obscure, accomplish what percentage-wise is only a starting point for what can be truly gleaned from trainer results.

You can fine-tune each and every one of the trainers that send out horses at the meet by isolating their strong points.

  • For instance, Steve Asmussen is very adept at sending out juveniles in particular and with maiden special weight horses in general.

  • On the other hand, while his bread is buttered in the claiming game, he is at best average first off the claim. Nonetheless, the public is often swayed by the fact that he is sending out a last out haltered runner so is more often than not likely to over-bet that horse.

  • Overall, Bill Mott is definitely a better play on the grass, and is even stronger when moving a horse to the turf for the first time following a prior "workout" race or two on dirt. Because of his notoriety, however, Mott's 17.5 win percentage at 2007 fall meet produced an overall negative R.O.I. Yet "smart" money often shows for Mott on his so-so dirt form to grass moves, so that might be one time where you'd be less likely caught short on a backed contender.

  • Despite being relatively unknown among the amateur bettors that make up most of the betting lines, trainer Cody Autrey is starting to become a strong factor for sharp players. He is particularly adept at scoring first off a recent claim and hopefully will be running many more than the 17 horses he ran at the fall 2007 meet. In fact, it was at the corresponding spring/summer meet in 2007 that Autrey made enough of a name to be able to expand to Southern California and elsewhere, so you can count on him having a solid string here by late April.

Those three examples are just a scant few examples of the many trainer handicapping approaches that are available if you are willing to do the work. Trainers such as the aforementioned Jeff Talley and Forest Kaelin, as well as Tom Amoss, Bernard Flint, W. Bret Calhoun and others give little ground to their better known brethren, but in many ways are more productive to a savvy bettor.

While it is natural to get somewhat blinded by the shine reflecting from the more visible trainers that will be in the news (especially those with runners in the Kentucky Derby) during the opening weeks of the upcoming Churchill Downs meet, you'd be well served if you realize that a better reward awaits in their shadows.

When the "Gasman" Lit Up New York

He never won the Kentucky Derby. His horses won millions of dollars in purses, but none could be even loosely described as a "blue blood." He, himself, was a racing outsider who most certainly had no training pedigree, no famous father to show him the way. In the beginning, he was simply Gasper Moschera, the Union card carrying carpenter who loved to bet races.

Yet, Gasper Moschera dominated the toughest circuit in America-Belmont-Saratoga-Aqueduct-throughout the 1990's, winning the leading trainer title 6 consecutive times and finishing in the top three in races won 8 out of 9 years.  He achieved such a level of fame that horseplayers accorded him the ultimate respect, giving him the nickname "Gasman," by which he will forever be known. And, he accomplished that feat with a stable that was 100% claiming horses, many of which he improved to be solid stakes winners and contenders.

After hanging around the track and befriending horsemen, Moschera took and passed the test for his Trainer's License. He then hung up his shingle down the road from New York in the old Keystone Park, now Philadelphia Park. With poor quality stock, he had to become resourceful and improvise.

Being a bettor is what helped him excel. To this day, Moschera will say he never "looked at horses," before he claimed them. Instead, he studied the Racing Form looking for horses that were in shape and that he thought he could improve. Years of studying past performances to pick winners had honed his instincts to the point where he knew what made horses improve and go up the claiming ladder rather than down.

Moschera was a solid handicapper. A man who knew what he liked when betting to win. He was known over the years to many times "go to the bank and take out $10,000 or so to put on a horse."  He realized that horses he handicapped to win today could actually be hitting their best form cycle and go on win streaks. As a trainer, he relied on his ability to read the Racing Form ® and find those types of horses in the PP's.

Claiming horses can be an expensive game. You drop the claim in the box in the Secretary's office at least 15 minutes before the race is run. When the gates open, you become the owner for all purposes except the purse and the Winner's Circle photo. If that horse breaks down, it will be your account that is charged for the ambulance and vet fees. If the horse comes up lame in the race, there is no way to revoke the purchase. It is truly a game of Caveat Emptor-buyer beware!

To succeed, one needs a bankroll, moxie and the knowledge to pick the right horses. Moschera had the moxie and his handicapping expertise game him the knowledge. The bankroll was provided by millionaire owner Albert Davis and his daughter, Barbara. "Mr. Davis let me do whatever I wanted," Moschera has said on more than one occasion. It was a good policy.

For example: In 1983, Moschera spotted a horse running in New York name Moro, who has being handled by trainer Joe Cantey. The distinguishing part of Moro's record was that he was hitting the board, but not winning while sprinting.  In fact, Moro had gotten a piece of the purse in 10 of his previous 12 races-running seconds, thirds and fourths-before October 12 of that year when Moschera haltered him for a $45,000 claim.

If you're a bettor, you're going to be impressed. Moschera had figured out Moro was coming into his best races. And, on the day he was claimed, he finally won and paid $24.80 so you could have cashed a nice ticket, if you had handicapped with Moschera's method. But, the trainer himself was looking for even bigger money.

"Moro wanted to run long," Gasper has told journalists and racing writers. He adds that one of his claming angles was to look for a horse that showed tactical speed in sprints. "If a horse ran close to the pace and finished well, I know I could usually stretch them out. Most people make the mistake of looking for horses making a big close in sprints. But, those types usually come up empty when they go longer distances."

Moschera moved Moro up in class and ran him back in another sprint just four days after the claim. He got a piece of the purse when running 4th. After that, it was time to let Moro roll and the crafty trainer did. On October 19, just 6 days after the claim, Moschera stretched Moro out to a mile. The horse won "for fun" by 4 ¾ lengths under a hand ride by Robbie Davis and paid $9.80. Seven days later, he won again, this time paying $8.20.

In less than two weeks from the claim, Moshera had 2 wins and a 4th from a horse that had won just one race from his previous 20 before the claim. And, if anyone was following the action, two really good bets could have been cashed. In all, Moro ended up winning 18 races, including several stakes, and over $740,000 for Moshera. Obviously, Moro was not a bad claim.

That was the way Gasper Moschera trained. He took horses that his handicapping showed were ready to improve, kept the animal fit and sharp and won lots of races with them.

How many races?  How about 24 races from 72 starts and over $700,000 in winnings for Iron Gavel, another timely claim. Or taking Royal Haven out of a $75,000 claiming race at Saratoga then coming back 11 days later to win an allowance race and then within a month finishing 2nd in the Pennsylvania Derby. Royal Haven went on to win 19 of 41 races and $891,501 in a Graded States career in which he won the Grade II General George and Fall Highweight Handicaps and the Grade 3 Gravesend Handicap.

Moschera had incredible success with many former claimers. He claimed Videogenic for $90,000 at Belmont in May, 1985. That mare went on to win stakes at Gulfstream Park and the Grade I Santa Ana Handicap at Santa Anita and to win over $1,1 Million dollars. That's a success story that Moschera says would never have happened, if he has gone to look at Videogenic before claming her instead of just trusting his handicapping instincts. "She was just a skinny little rat. If I had seen her, I probably wouldn't have claimed her."

Other success stores that proved Moschera's exceptional ability to handicap, included Shoop, a former claimer who won 12 races and $940,000, most of that under the trainer's care; Mr. Sinatra, taken for $75,000, who won 13 races and $720,000 in his career, and Carjack, who won 8 consecutive races-an almost unheard for feat for a thoroughbred-in a 20 win career.

In fact, Carjack was a favorite "betting tool" of Moschera's. The trainer knew Carjack loved the mud. So he entered Carjack for "turf races" every time rain was forecasted. When it rained and the races were taken off the turf, Moschera would had a stickout horse going against turf specialists who were forced to run off of their best surface. Those races were no contest. Yet, bettors should take note that Carjack paid as high as $16.40 in those races in which he was so much the best, he would have had to fall down to lose.

Moschera is retired these days. But, he still keeps his hand in handicapping winners. All of his training success came from his handicapping ability to find horses in advance that were ready to win and that he knew he could keep at top form so they could win again and again.

These days, he's living in Florida and looking for spot plays here and there And, still picking winners just like the old days.

This spring, Moschera expects to publish a book, "The Gasman Lights Up The Board, How To Pick Winners, Spot Longshots Find Undervalued Horses And Win Everyday At The Races " which details his handicapping system in an adjusted for bettors method. Others can talk about how they handicap. Moschera can point to the Millions of Dollars in purses his handicapping won for his owners and himself. If you're a serious horseplayer looking for an edge, you won't want to miss this publication.

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