Betting the Breeders’ Cup Rollercoaster

The Breeders' Cup action on the tracks at Keeneland was, barring the high class procession of Flightline in the Classic, fiercely contested and highly emotionally charged. So, too, was betting the races; and, for this punter at least, it was a white knuckle roller coaster of a weekend. Allow me to elaborate...

A feature of playing big meetings is the availability of futures - or ante post, if you prefer - markets: more generous prices offered ahead of time when there is less certainty about which horses will run, what form they will be in, and how the races will set up. In the days leading up to the event, I had what the latest markets suggested was a solid value book and, importantly, had largely dodged the dreaded no shows.

Alas, that luck didn't hold with Laurel River getting scratched from the Dirt Mile the day before. 7/1 about a 3/1 shot is decent; 7/1 about a non-runner is, well, not decent. That's the futures game in a nutshell right there.

To Friday, and five two-year-old contests, three of them on the turf. How would the Europeans fare? And how would the portfolio hold up?! The opening Juvenile Turf Sprint would offer a tentative answer to both questions.

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Love Reigns had been available at 8/1 a few days prior to race day - highlighted in this post as a likely shortener - and was sent off the 3.14/1 favourite for Wesley Ward, seeking a fourth straight win in the race; it's only been on the card for five years! That one broke only OK but couldn't run with the British speedsters who, led by Mischief Magic, finished 1-2-4-5. I'd had little bets on a few US horses (they'd won all four prior renewals) and they're mostly still running... I did nick a couple of quid with Dramatised's fine run but neither she nor any other was a match for Charlie Appleby's colt.

 

Next came the Juvenile Fillies and a contention that the Alcibiades, run over the same course and distance four weeks prior, was the key race. There, Wonder Wheel beat Chop Chop by a rapidly diminishing nose, with Raging Sea third. Chop Chop was the bet and 6/1 was secured (having flagged her at 8's and been too tardy to actually get any of that). She went off a little bigger than 9/4 but had no chance, getting a five wide transit throughout and eased off in the straight, with Wonder Wheel winning again and Raging Sea again finishing third. The winner was impressive under different tactics - she was supposed to be front rank but missed the bus! - and would probably have won anyway.

 

Staying with the two-year-old fillies but on the grass now, in the Juvenile Fillies Turf, it was time for Europe to try to win their third renewal on the occasion of the fifteenth running. Not a strong record, but Aidan O'Brien had peppered the target in spite of never having won the race. I'd fielded against the British and Irish, with their very poor race record, and had some fancy prices about a clutch of American runners. It was money back on G Laurie after she scratched the day before; and I was cheering 20/1 Free Look or 40/1 Pleasant Passage to get in front.

We all know what Meditate did: she was much the best and dominated in the straight. But with 13/2 or so Pleasant Passage running second, and 15/2 Free Look less than a length behind her in fifth, it was another close but no cigar event for this punter.

After two second places at decent prices, and a favourite taken at 6/1 who was the 'right answer with the wrong trip', it wasn't going especially well. And it would be going worse after the Juvenile...

In that penultimate Breeders' Cup Friday race, I'd played a 'no brainer' double finishing in the Mile with Modern Games and starting with Bob Baffert's Cave Rock. I feared the inside drawn Hurricane J as a pace spoiler and, as it turned out, was right to because that one ensured Cave Rock - sent off just less than 1/2 - did a tap more than ideal in chasing the lead. As they entered the straight, up loomed east coast champ Forte to run the jolly down.

 

Another second and it was starting to smart. At least this time, I picked up a few shekels for the place part on National Treasure, the second of four horses flagged in the 'bet these now' post from a week or so prior. He returned 8/1 and only 1/2 for the 'show' (i.e. to finish 3rd or better).

 

Finally on the opening day we had the Juvenile Turf, with the raiders bidding for a clean sweep on the sod and me bidding to get things back on track. This time I'd swung at an Appleby - not the only one across the weekend as will become apparent - in the form of progressive Autumn Stakes winner Silver Knott. In my quest for value, I'd merely supplanted big prices on this occasion, with the exception of 8/1 win only on Silver K.

Naturally, he found just a dash of traffic in his daring rail run while Victoria Road charmed himself through the eye of a needle between horses to prevail by a nose. The four remaining plays in the race, three of them over-staked most likely, are currently asking for directions to the jam stick somewhere towards the end of the back straight.

 

At the end of day one with the UK books I'd staked £586 and returned a skimpy £129.48. Meanwhile, in tote action, I had bought a $500 betting voucher and converted that into $708 by close of play, mainly thanks to a patriotic (of sorts) $20 exacta Victoria Road over Silver Knott; so a little more than £250 down overall on Friday. Far from a drama at this point, and I at least had some betting tokens for day two, as well as an equally healthy looking portfolio for the Saturday.

*

Breeders' Cup Saturday is a goliath of a race day: nine main event races bookended by two or three undercard heats make for an eleven or, as in this case, twelve race card. Even just focusing on the Cup stuff, which was the case for me, is a momentous undertaking. I was up early - everyone needed to be with a first post time of 10.30am - and had scribbled my tote plays into a notebook.

These are them, and I placed them all prior to the first race, something I've never done before and which turned out to be a godsend.

Total stakes were $1173 rather than $965 due to a) backing Cody's Wish for fifty bucks, and b) immediately recycling the return on that on two losers in the FM Turf. Sigh. Anyway, we're getting ahead of ourselves.

Saturday's curtain raiser was the Filly and Mare Sprint, a race in which I've had plenty of success backing bombs down the years and, with a ton of early speed in the pre-entries, I was excited to swing big again. But, when first Letruska and then Hot Peppers - both out and out need the lead types - were scratched, it notably diluted the front end heat. We still had Slammed, Lady Rocket and Echo Zulu, each of which had led or been within half a length at the first call in three of their last four starts, so the bomb play remained viable to some degree.

The whole position hung on a contention that favoured Midnight Olive might i) be over-estimated and ii) burn herself out chasing a too hot tempo. Long story slightly shorter, it just didn't play out that way: the first half went in 22.10, 44.89, which is quick enough; but the speed held up and Olive showed plenty of class to win by daylight.

Tote tickets with big-priced deep closers on top went on the spike. As did my only ante post play, on the sole Japanese runner, Chain Of Love, who, after a taking late rally both in the Dubai Golden Shaheen and in Japan last time, showed absolutely nada here. The other two deep closers - Obligatory and Chi Town Lady - did what they do but always at a respectful distance (respectively 14.5 and 16 lengths off the front at the first call!)

 

Having projected the opener completely wrong, I then managed to totally overlook Caravel, winner of the Turf Sprint, when doing form previews of 'all' runners. This was a potent combination of embarrassing and annoying, not that she'd have featured highly on my shortlist save for the good looking track and trip win last time out. I certainly wouldn't have played her 'on top', so that's something, I guess.

In the end, as well as ante post plays Arrest Me Red (ran fine, not good enough) and a double kicking off with Golden Pal (dreadfully dull effort), I added a few day of race darts including the Appleby duo and a defensive play on Flotus at about a million to one on the board. Also limped in with a very narrow Pick 4 guess. Limped back out again about 55.77 seconds later - in fairness, so did most other people who probably staked more into that pool than me.

Chazza's Creative Force closed well into third without ever threatening the (pretty impressive) winner; Emaraaty Ana ran another stormer in second and Highfield Princess performed perfectly well in fourth. The $100 US tote chip on her was lost but she was, like most of my tickets, value when comparing available odds.

The Turf Sprint was the only grass race won by the home team all weekend as it transpired, British runners finishing 2nd, 3rd, 4th and 6th in what was still a strong non-winning display.

 

"System going well, send more money" was the summary at this point. And, in the Dirt Mile, some respite. A lazy, chalky bullseye on story horse Cody's Wish - see below - was a relative shot in the arm to at least stem the flow: nice little cocktail of mixed metaphor there...

Cody's Wish was given a measured ride to out-finish the extremely busy and admirably tough Cyberknife who went down fighting. I'd had a good looking investment on late nonner, Laurel River, and my wise guy exacta selections - one of which was the other horse I backed in Britain, Simplification - took the wrong course, or something.

 

Check out Cody's on the jockey cam

 

Onwards, as is relentlessly the case through the top class nonet of wagering conundrums (wasn't sure if it should be 'conundra', so googled and discovered a very fun - if utterly nerdy - answer here) on day 2 at BC.

[Aside: Six-eight Friday/Saturday would work so much better, but we don't really need another juvenile race - dirt sprint?! - which would only make it seven-nine in any case; and moving one of the older horse Saturday races would be incongruent, so guess we're staying like this for now]

It was the Filly & Mare Turf next with its host of Euro entries. I was as cool as a refrigerated cucumber on the chances of the Ballydoyle 'T' brace, Tuesday and Toy, but all around the vibes - ah, yes, the vibes - were strong, especially about the Oaks winner. My contention had been she wasn't needing a bigger than quarter mile drop in trip; the counter - made by, clearly, smarter judges than me - was that she was crying out for it. Turned out she was. Luckily for me, one of the shroods was Neil, with whom I'd chewed the form cud for much of the weekend. His bet of the day, I couldn't ignore her, especially at 6/1 in a place.

It is, as they say, far better to be lucky than good. Having been neither heretofore, I borrowed someone else's good for ten minutes and caught some luck.

In point of fact, I'd been good enough to back second-placed In Italian each way at 7/1 - she went off 3/1 - and lucky enough that she made all bar the last fifty yards of the running. But the same tote board tempted me into a rapid release of my Cody coin, first with $100 on Nashwa at 4/1 (her price then proceeded to crash to a little better than 5/2, at which she'd have been no bet) and then $50 Above The Curve who ran no race this time. In the finish, with a $5 exacta returning $110, this was slightly better than a scratch race overall. But, left to my own devices, it would have been a car crash. Jeez.

 

The middle leg on Saturday, race five, was the Sprint, and the first of two coronations. Or so we/I thought. Jackie's Warrior had been much the best in the division all season, figured to get an easy lead, had had legit excuses (stamina, injury) when failing at odds on the past two Breeders' Cups, and, well, he'd just win, wouldn't he?

One of my learnings from the weekend - which I should already know - is that, when it looks like one horse will get a soft lead, it's information that every rider in the race will be aware of; as such, the chance of such an eventuality diminishes, and the price needs to reflect that scope for something different to play out. 4/5 is not a price that permits much uncertainty at all, and so my third - and, mercifully, final - punchy short odds double was waved adios as the #7 horse, Super Ocho, two boxes inside Jackie's Warrior, dished it up to the champ-elect on the front end through five of the six eighths of a mile. Then along came the big improver this season, Elite Power, with a strong finish to roll on by. JW was sufficiently cooked that the octogenarian (OK, unfair, he's eight, not 80) C Z Warrior also shuffled his Zimmer frame past in the final strides.

This was a hideous bet for me, coupling a non-runner and a pair of shorties both of whom failed to make the place position let alone the win. The first two home were nowhere on my exotics either so, head shaking like a sideways Churchill pooch, we pushed on pronto.

 

Well into the second half, then, and I've yet to have a winning opinion of my own. I was feeling pretty down in the chops by this point, and I didn't really have anything to cheer in the Mile after Cave Rock had done for my value double with Modern Games. I'd backed Annapolis at 10's because I felt he had to be shorter by the off, and I had some tote action firmly centred on Modern G. I meant to back Ivar but didn't, which would have been annoying assuming the books had paid four places and a relief if they paid three. And I played a bit of Order of Australia and Kinross at his ridiculous US tote price of 9.39/1: I didn't like him at 3/1 back home but this was a bit insulting.

More losers, more self-flagellation and wagering-wise I was in what felt like as big a hole in a couple of days as I'd been since some reckless punting ventures of many moons ago. I'd done about $750 on the tote to this point, but had $250 left of those wagers placed before racing; but my ante post book was in tatters: £1300 staked, £600 returned. Writing that now, it's not nearly as terrible as I'd perceived, but when you're caught up in a really fast-moving moment like Breeders' Cup Saturday lucid thinking can fail even the best of us - and certainly me.

There were three races left and I needed a minor miracle to get out breathing, or so I thought without the benefit of the bean counting in the stanza above. It was the Distaff next, and I'd made a stinky each way play on Malathaat at 3/1 () believing that the eight pre-entries would reduce to seven with one filly claiming first preference elsewhere. If ever a bet deserved to get whacked, it was this one. But, with so many on the spike that arguably deserved better, the perversity of the betting deities was on show yet again.

In the best finish of the meeting - a three-way shootout separated by nostrils - Malathaat just edged Blue Stripe with Clairiere rounding out the podium positions. The winner paid 2.88/1 compared to my 3/1. I mean, I'd take it if you offered me it on every 3/1 ticket struck, but... With a couple of place bob on Clairiere each way at 14/5, too, this felt massive. Again, it felt bigger than it was. Such can be the heightened sensitivity of a marathon punting sesh.

 

Additionally, I had taken a couple of wimpy Pick 3's starting in the Distaff, rolling through the Turf and ending in the Classic. This is the losing $1 version, and I played a $3 version with the same horses in legs 1 and 2, and the big guy in the Classic.

In fairness, they may have been narrow but they left well touted Nest off the Distaff leg, and that helped. If not yet quite back in the game, it was at least looking a little less like a motorway pile up and veering towards a shattered headlight, to continue with the utterly unsuitable vehicular metaphor.

But then came something approaching divine intervention in the Breeders' Cup Turf. I knew from midsummer I wanted to be with Charlie in anything beyond a mile on the lawns, and I'd seen a quote mid-September that Nations Pride and Rebel's Romance were slated to get on the 'plane. In their final preps, both took the eye in differing ways: Nations battered his rivals at Aqueduct while Rebel's showed a rarely-seen-in-distance-racers turn of pace before flattening (or maybe idling) in a German Group 1; he still won there. Both were 12/1. Well, I went and backed 'em though I wasn't allowed much. Fair enough, I suppose. A week before, I had a bit of a saver on War Like Goddess, and before racing began I'd played boldly in exactas and trifectas with four Euro horses, the Appleby pair as 'A' picks on top.

It went really rather better than anything to that point. And thank crikey for that.

After drawing £720 I was now in front on the ante post book, a scarcely plausible position from just an hour ago. As well as that, I'd cashed a $10 exacta with Rebel's Romance on top of Stone Age, another horse I was against when doing the form but drawn to by 'the vibes'. The exacta paid $69.87 for a dollar, so $698.70 for ten. I'd played some $5 trifectas with Charlie over Aidan/Charlie over Aidan/Charlie. Not quite, but could conceivably have put the Goddess underneath: it came up $175.27 for each 50 cent unit. Woulda coulda shoulda.

Emotions were up and up by now. Some people say you shouldn't get emotional when betting, but not me. I want to be moved by both the action and the outcome. I want to feel good and, yes, I want to feel bad; that's the game: we need the bad beats to give us emotional context for when it goes our way, to elevate the sense of joy, relief, excitement, vindication. That's why we bet. It's why I bet at any rate. Those who use an algo to nick a few quid... well good luck to them but what a soulless existence.

Here's the Rebel, reprising that late gear change and getting me boisterous in the process:

And so to the climax of the meeting, the Breeders' Cup Classic, and a fella named Flightline. I had those two Pick 3's live into the Classic and there's little doubt the dollar versions were going to pay more than the three buck single through the jolly. I did also have a couple of weirdo bits and pieces staked a while back, including a non-runner, a forgotten Ky Derby winner, and some smaller staked each way filth; but I was only rooting for one man here, Flavien Prat, Flightline's jockey.

The race had a clear shape to it - as clear as any race can given the comments made in the Sprint section above - and this one went with the script: Life Is Good, an extremely classy if one-dimensional front end brute, surged on with Flightline tailgating on the snaff. At the top of the stretch, with Irad Ortiz throwing the lot at Life Is Good, Prat asked his lad to lengthen: the verdict was instant.

Flightline bounded away, Life Is Good a fading shape in the rear view mirrors; the gallant trailblazer eventually eased out to fifth place, surpassed in the final quarter by all of Olympiad, Taiba and Rich Strike respectively. The final margin of victory was eight and a quarter lengths, taking Flightline's six-race career aggregate winning margin to 71 lengths! It's just a shame we won't see any more of him as he feels like he's only really getting started.

Epicenter, second betting choice, unfortunately sustained an injury, which has been successfully operated on since and, though he has been retired from racing, the prognosis is good that this super-consistent three-year-old - winner of the Grade 1 Travers and second in two Triple Crown races including the Kentucky Derby - will be able to take up stallion duties in due course.

After the Turf, I was able to watch this almost exclusively as a sporting event rather than a wagering one, and that was just great. I cashed the Pick 3, which didn't pay much ($123) but was a welcome contribution to the bottom line. In terms of that bottom line, buying a voucher and then keeping most winning tickets until the end (I did cash and 're-invest' the Cody chip) makes it easy to track profit and loss. I bought a $500 voucher on Friday, topped it up with $300 before racing on Saturday and didn't pay with 'folding' for a bet thereafter. So the $868 and pennies I cashed the winning tickets in for after the last represented a most improbable - and waffery-thin - positive outcome. Likewise on the UK books P&L:

 

Having published detailed thoughts on every race here, it was more the ignominy of sending so many geegeez readers inadvertently in the wrong direction that smarted most. Obviously, I bet within my parameters of comfort - though Saturday did take me away from the centre of that zone - but what is never comfortable for me is when I have publicly shared the name of a horse I think is worth betting: it's pressure I can't handle, truth be told. With luck, at least some of you will have found a way to the pay window through the weekend. [Regardless of how the results go, it's always the same - large - amount of labour to work through the form. Sometimes the effort is rewarded, often now. That's how it is, eh?]

I very much hope you enjoyed the Breeders' Cup show, especially the brilliant performances by the Euro squad - not just the winners but 'we' laid siege to the places as well - and that boyo in the Classic.

Matt

**

post script

A few things I learned, or about which I was reminded:

  1. Short-priced horses habitually get beaten at the Breeders' Cup because the races are so deep. Doubling them up doesn't really make sense. [Note to self]
  2. European horses seem to love Keeneland: they're 12/20 in the three Breeders' Cups here, the 6/7 this year bettering 4/7 in 2020 and 2/6 in 2015.
  3. Betting race to race is emotionally challenging. The very best thing I did was to strike the majority of bets before the first. Whilst conceding the chance to scout the prices pre-race, it took emotion out of the thought process (but not the race watching process), leading to more reasoned wagers.
  4. A little knowledge is a dangerous thing, especially in pursuit of a late night weekend winner!

**

COMPETITION TIME

I managed to bring a few souvenirs back with me and thought they'd make a nice raffle prize. As they say across the pond, here's what I got...

Click on the image to view full size

- Programmes from both Friday's and Saturday's meetings
- A Daily Racing Form for Friday's card
- Some Kentucky 'horse country' brochures
- A Breeders' Cup lanyard
- A Breeders' Cup tote bag
- Uncashed $1 win bet on Flightline

Plus three runners up prizes of an uncashed $1 win bet on Flightline

To be in with a chance to win, simply go here and enter your name and email. These details will ONLY be used to contact you for postal address if you're a winner. One entry per person. Duplicate entries will be disqualified. Good luck!

Matt

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4 replies
  1. BenHargreaves
    BenHargreaves says:

    Love your work Matt – win or lose. I really enjoy the postscripts. What a fantastic trip.

  2. Shacks
    Shacks says:

    Always such a detailed account of the Breeders form from you Matt.
    I went with 6 of your selections in a Heinz from race 5 onwards on Saturday and that led to 4 winners and 2 places so a nice profit to relatively small stakes . A big cheers from me.

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