Friday, February 17, 2012

Anything's possible when beating the horses

ARCADIA, Calif. – No one hits the pick six on a ticket that costs only $20.

The pick six is won by big bettors that play big tickets. For the rest of us, the pick six is too steep, with too many combinations to cover. It costs too much. The losing streaks last too long.

The pick six is not a good bet, for most of us.

But horseplayers are dreamers. So occasionally, we take a stab. Who knows? Maybe today is the lucky day. Sure, it is.

The pick six Feb. 12 at Santa Anita started tough – a turf-route claimer for nonwinners of two, a filly-mare sprint claimer, and a turf sprint for statebred maidens. Geez, a bettor would need to use lots of horses – spend lots of money – just to stay alive halfway.

The carryover was $135,446; bettors wagered another $831,146. Apparently, many still consider the pick six a good bet. Fools like me say it is not, and then we bet it anyway. This story is about one such guy, a small pick-six bettor taking a $20 shot.

Restricted claiming races are a curse, and in the first leg, race 4, the bettor narrowed the nine-horse field to five contenders. There goes most of the $20. His ticket was five deep and two deep, followed by four singles. Who plays the pick six like that? What an idiot.

Leg one was a “spread,” and whenever a “spread race” includes a Marty Jones trainee, it is a good idea to include that horse. Jones works horses slowly, which inflates the odds they often outrun. Eight of the past 16 years, Jones runners produced a flat-bet profit.

Jones trained the longshot Long Legged Lovely, returning from a one-year layoff with leisurely works. She was a trainer-angle longshot in a difficult race, nothing more. When jockey Hector Berrios guided her to victory at $33.20, the pick six was off to a good start.

The second leg, race 5, was a claiming sprint for fillies and mares, with obvious favorites Classy Attraction and All the Love. The bettor used both; bet-down Classy Attraction paid $6 winning in a romp under Chantal Sutherland.

Two races into the sequence, the bettor’s small pick-six ticket was live. All he needed was to win the remaining four races with four singles. Good luck with that.

The best-bet designation on the Daily Racing Form analysis page can be a misnomer. It should be called most probable winner. “Best bet” is often a favorite at low odds, and not necessarily a reasonable horse on which to wager. But occasionally, the term “best bet” does apply. It did for leg three, race 6. The pick-six bettor noticed.

Abella, 4-1 in the program, was making the second start of her career after a respectable debut. Tom Blincoe trains Abella. Blincoe also trained her siblings Jet Set Girl and Bell Zone. Both won maiden races for Blincoe the second start of their career. Interesting.

Perhaps, Abella would follow the pedigree-trainer pattern and also win her second career start. Best bet, indeed. Abella and jockey Martin Pedroza waltzed home at a big, fat $7. The first of four singles had landed. The pick six was halfway home.

Small-ticket pick-six bettors always face a decision – use logical contenders (favorites) in each leg and hope to merely cash for any amount, or key longshot runners and go for a home run. Who doesn’t like to swing for the fences?

My Brite Caroline was an 8-1 longshot in race 7, up in class following a first-off-the-claim win for trainer Gerard Piccioni. Andy Harrington, clocker for National Turf, noted that her jockey, Corey Nakatani, worked her between starts. Harrington liked what he saw.

Analyzing a Feb. 4 work, Harrington wrote this about My Brite Caroline: “C. Nak up, filly is really going well finishing with purpose.”

My Brite Caroline was “outclassed” by the 2-1 program favorite Melissa Rose. But the odds discrepancy made My Brite Caroline a reasonable gamble. She was a sharp horse up in class, always a potent angle. Nakatani gave My Brite Caroline a fantastic ride. He saved ground, cut the corner, and won by a neck at a bet-down $12. Four down, two to go.

The Sweet Life Stakes for 3-year-old fillies was next, and anyone who saw Indigo River win her U.S. debut for trainer Jeff Mullins a month earlier on the same downhill course had to be impressed. Indigo River reproduced the win, bursting clear late under Joel Rosario to win by a 1 1/2 lengths at $5.20. Now it was five down, one to go.

The pick six is not a good bet for most players.

But here was one small bettor on a sleepy Sunday afternoon, holding a $20 pick-six play that was 5 for 5. Daily Racing Form ’s handicapping tool Formulator suggested he was on the right horse in the final race, a starter allowance around two turns.

Mike Mitchell is one of those high-percentage trainers that make one wonder – why bother with Formulator? Mitchell wins often, at all levels, with many angles. You don’t need Formulator to see that.

Mitchell’s recent maiden sprint winner Pulpit’s Express was the speed of the race. On numbers, he was the fastest horse based on a bias-aided sprint win last out. But he faced a double challenge – winners and two turns, both for the first time.

It is a tough combination. Not so tough for Mitchell, according to Formulator.

The past five years, Mitchell was 6 for 12 with maiden sprint winners stretching out against winners.

At the first click of the tote board, Pulpit’s Express opened at even-money. That is always a good sign for a Mitchell runner. The gelding looked terrific in the post parade. He was dry and on his toes. Meanwhile, the pick-six bettor quietly washed out.

Only one of the first five winners in the pick six was a program favorite. A mythical $2 win parlay already exceeded $5,000.

Now, it all came down to one horse. Pulpit’s Express was 4-5 when the gates opened, and Rosario put him on the lead. The pace slowed on the backstretch as Rosario sat still.

At the top of the lane, in the blink of an eye, it was over. Pulpit’s Express opened up. He was in front by two lengths, by three, by four at the eighth pole, 4 1/4 at the wire. It was not even close.

No one hits the pick six on a ticket that costs only $20. But horseplayers are dreamers, and occasionally we take a stab.

That is the true story of what happened Feb. 12, 2012, at Santa Anita.

It was, in fact, my lucky day.

The pick six paid $41,418.40.

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