In search of winners

Analysis and plays for Friday's and Saturday's Breeders' Cup races at Santa Anita

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The Breeders' Cup races will be Friday and Saturday at Santa Anita. It should be an entertaining two days. There are only a few races I really like; due to work commitments and the World Series I have not been able to dive in as deeply as usual. However, I will throw a few opinions out on each race.

Friday's races

These are all pretty wide open. Keep in mind there are a lot of evenly matched horses, so shopping for prices is critical. So that is the approach we are taking:

Race 5, BC Juvenile Turf Sprint

A'Ali is an intriguing European runner who will be a solid price (6-1 morning line). He has had only one bad start at a slightly longer distance. Europeans tend to have an edge in turf races, and this guy is worth a play across the board or maybe an exacta wheel up and down with the field.

Race 6, BC Juvenile Turf

Probably a pass race. No. 12 Arizona will be the favorite and looks pretty tough. There might be more value in No. 13 Fort Myers, who finished just behind the favorite at Ascot in June. Might be worth a weighted wager, with more to show and place than win. Something like $10 to win, $20 to place and $40 to show.

Race 7, BC Juvenile Fillies

Another I will likely be passing on. If you must play it, maybe take No. 4 British Idiom, but the price will likely not be good enough to warrant a play.

Race 8, BC Juvenile Filly Turf

The Europeans should have this one covered. I like the idea of keying No. 3 Shadn (10-1) first and second with all the other Euros in the exactas - 1-5-6-8-9-14.

Race 9, BC Juvenile

No. 5 Scabbard offers the best value after a troubled second against the favorite, No. 1 Dennis' Moment last time out. No. 9 Maxfield will take a lot of action as well. Could easily come down to the 1 and 9, but 8-1 on the 5 is too juicy to pass on.

Saturday's races

The main event, with some really competitive races featuring some of the best horses in the world in the latter part of the card.

Race 4, BC Filly Mare Sprint

I like No. 4 Come Dancing, but the price will be pretty short, although Covfefe will take the bulk of the money. We are going to key the 4 first and second in the exactas and tris with 1-3-8-9 as we will go closer heavy in a speed-dominated race.

Race 5, BC Turf Sprint

Pretty much throwing darts at a board here. I do like the 1 horse at 5-1 and might look at a 1-all all-1 exacta play.

Race 6, BC Dirt Mile

Omaha Beach will be the heavy favorite off a nice win over the surface at a distance shorter than he wanted to go against an excellent sprinter. Hard to get around him, but I will throw in the 1-2-4-7-8 in boxed exactas and tris and hope for the best.

Race 7, BC Filly/Mare Turf

I like No. 9 Villa Marina quite a bit in here. Her only off the board finish of her career came at a much longer distance and she still was only beaten two lengths. Will play her across the board, and will also use her in exactas first and second with 1-2-3-4-7-8-12.

Race 8, BC Sprint

Mitole will be favored, but we will take a shot against him. The only time he was in a race with a sub-22 opening quarter, he faded in the lane. Shancelot all but guarantees that fraction. The key horses will be a pair of long shot closers, No. 2 Hog Creek Hustle and No. 7 Whitmore, who appears to be rounding back into form and tends to show up in big spots. So the exactas would be 2-7 with 1-2-3-4-6-7-9.

Race 9, BC Mile

Another I have very little clue on. Lucallan across the board is worth a play but not worth a big investment.

Race 10, BC Distaff

Midnight Bisou, who ran at Sam Houston earlier this year, has been a win machine in 2019 with seven wins in seven starts. She will be tough here, but this field is loaded. Would throw her in exacta and trifecta boxes with 3-5-6-9-11.

Race 11, BC Turf

Bricks and Mortar (9) is the favorite and has five wins in five starts this year, but this might be longer than he wants to go. The 5 and 10 horses might be viable alternatives, but don't expect much value. Probably pass on this one.

Race 12, BC Classic

No. 11 Code of Honor has been in sharp form and always fires his shot. No. 8 McKinzie is the favorite and has never been worse than second in seven starts at Santa Anita. Hard to get past those two, but if you toss in long shots Owendale (3) and Yoshida (5) you might get a price. I will also key the 11 first and second in the try with 3-5-8 with all in third, and 3-5-8 with 11 with all.

Santaanita.com

In 2018, Justify won horse racing's Triple Crown, sweeping the Kentucky Derby, Preakness and Belmont Stakes. It was the second time a horse had accomplished the feat since 2015. Before that, the last winner was in 1978. It is one of the most difficult accomplishments in sports.

The horses that have won it are instantly enshrined in history and compared to the all-time greats, like Secretariat and Seattle Slew. When American Pharoah won in 2015, that was indeed the case. He would go on to win the Breeders' Cup Classic, becoming the first horse to win the Triple Crown and the Classic. It was an amazing year, and he was truly a brilliant race horse who captivated fans around the country.

When Justify won just three years later, it did not feel the same. He beat a very suspect group of three year olds, and was not impressive doing it. And then he retired as if his connections were afraid to see him lose against older horses and taint his legacy. No one compared him to any of the all time greats. It simply felt weird.

Now it makes sense

As the memory of Justify was slipping into history, a bombshell broke on Wednesday. Joe Drape of the New York Times dropped an in depth piece on the horse. Justify failed a drug test after the Santa Anita Derby. He should have been disqualified from his win in the race, and would not have even been in the Triple Crown. But the ruling was put off, kept under wraps, and the horse was allowed to race. After he won the Triple Crown, the board lessened the penalty for use of the particular drug he was caught with, effectively changing the rules to avoid a bad look.

Then it was somehow kept under wraps for two years.

Bad looks all around

As a longtime fan and supporter of the sport, stories like this are beyond frustrating, and goes to a deeper problem: Inconsistent rules. Each state has its own set of rules, and they are not all enforced consistently. When Maximum Security was disqualified from the Kentucky Derby, it was a controversy of the first order. Whether or not it was the right call varies from state to state, and even track to track. Stewards make those calls, and they are subjective. What is enforced in one place is not in another. Not everyone plays by the same standards.

Why Justify?

There is no reason to doubt Drape's reporting. He is one of the best in the business, especially when it comes to the news of the sport, and his story is well worth your time. So the real question is why?

The California Horse Racing Board took almost a month to confirm the results, ostensibly because they wanted to be sure. But that put them up against the Derby, and a DQ at that point would have been problematic. There is nothing wrong in being sure and getting the ruling right. But then once the horse wins the Triple Crown, imagine the outrage had it gone public.

There were three real problems; the lack of transparency, changing the rules and potential conflict of interest. Some of the board members are horse owners; the chairman owns horses raced by Justify's high profile trainer, Bob Baffert.

The board may have very well been, er, justified in all of its moves. But these three issues make it a very bad look.

The ruling that it was accidental, then, is easy to question. Baffert has had a ton of success and does not need to cheat, but he is not the only one in the barn or with contact to the horses. So it is possible the ruling was the right thing, but the way it happened is simply unacceptable. That the rules were changed after the Triple Crown makes it look even worse.

Black eyes? 

Those calling it yet another black eye on a sport that has had its share this year - the deaths at Santa Anita and the Derby itself - are merely scratching the surface. The sport has no eyes left. They have been beaten so hard it doesn't begin to tell the story. I have seen it all over the years; fixed races, horses being held back, inconsistent rulings, high profile cheating trainers. There are more good people than bad in racing, as there is in all of life. But it's always the bad that get the attention and ruin it for everyone else. Were these bad people? No. But when you try to hide something like this, there is no way to spin it into a positive.

The biggest issue - players have no rights

Lost in all this is the person who bets. Those of us who bet against Justify have no recourse. As sports betting becomes legal everywhere, these are issues that will impact more than horse racing. We already see it in boxing and MMA; you bet on a fight, lose and then a few days later whoever won failed a drug test and is disqualified. What if you bet on the Saints to cover Monday night, and two days after Deshaun Watson is suspended for PEDs and should have never played? While that is extreme - you made your decision based on the fact that he was playing - the player has no voice.

Horse racing should be more cognizant of that than any sport. Without betting, it does not exist. With sports betting coming to more states, horseplayers will gravitate away, especially as controversies like this keep happening. It is a sport that has been filled with controversy with years. Horse racing is where steroids started. Everyone in the sport should be aware of that.

There aren't a lot of us broken down horseplayers left. Decisions like this make it harder to keep trusting that the races we are betting on are honest.

The final analysis

Justify's breeding rights were sold for $60 million. As for his legacy? Most considered him the worst Triple Crown winner in history before. This won't do anything but reinforce that, but the breeding money spends just the same. Drape's story doesn't really change anything in the grand scheme. It simply casts light on a problem that needs to be dealt with whenever gambling and people's investments are involved: Transparency. Honestly. Consistency.

I won't hold my breath.

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