Thursday, November 26, 2015

2015 Japan Cup Preview

The Japan Cup -- its native land's richest race -- will be run this weekend, and with the retirement of defending champion Epiphaneia, in addition to a slew of injuries and retirements among the highest rated Japanese middle distance horses, we are left with a fairly open race. 

Four overseas shippers have joined the fray, led by Melbourne Cup fourth Trip to Paris. While on paper he appears to be up to the best of these, overseas runners have a dismal record in this race in the last decade with the most recent top three finish coming via the great mare Ouija Board in 2006. This race, however, is likely an afterthought after big runs in both the Caulfield and Melbourne Cups and, in reality, he's probably best over further.

German G1-winning colt Ito is probably more a pace presence than a winning chance as he is a free-running on-pace type. How fast he will go out front is one key to this contest. 

The lightly raced Erupt likely needs to improve to win this, but given his young age and relative inexperience, he has the potential to do so. Despite rain earlier in the week, he also appears likely to get the quick ground he needs. Another positive is his draw, which should allow him to be handy, but off the pace. 

Lovely Day enters here in the best form of the locals. A winner of four straight, and his last six in races between 2,000 meters and 2,400 meters, the five-year-old son of King Kamehameha has blossomed this season into the country's top middle distance runner. He's also won two of six at Tokyo Racecourse and barrier one makes him clearly the horse to beat. 

One would expect a few of those drawn wide to go forward with Ito on the front end, and should that scenario formalize, it would favor Gold Ship -- a stone cold closer who is known as much for his quirks as his talent. His two most races are a perfect example of his temperament with him having been every bit as lackluster last time out as he was spectacular two back when winning the G1 Tenno Sho (Spring). He has won one of three races at Tokyo and with this his penultimate start, the nation hopes their most popular grey maniac can get back on track before his swansong in the Arima Kinen.

The star of the three-year-old fillies this season, Mikki Queen, has tactical speed, which should allow her to get the first jump on the likes of Gold Ship. She is loaded with talent and a potent turn of foot, which was on display in both the Yushun Himba and Oka Sho. Whether or not it is wise to bet her in her first attempt versus older males, however, remains to be seen.

With no superstars in the field, this appears a race ripe for an upset and we will play it that way with Last Impact.

2014 was a breakout season for the five-year-old son of Deep Impact who won two G2s, one over 2,000m and the other over 2,400m in the autumn. Even his seventh place finish -- only 1 3/4 lengths behind superstar mare Gentildonna in her final race -- was admirable. His staying ability is among the best in the field, and it showed in the G1 Tenno Sho (Spring) when he finished within 1 1/4 lengths of Gold Ship when employing similar come from the back tactics.

His Sapporo Kinen run was much better than it looks on paper. He finished sixth, making an eye-catching outside move, circling the field into the far turn before flattening out a bit late -- yet still only finishing 1 1/4 lengths behind winner Decipher. He had substantial trouble last time out in the Tenno Sho (Autumn) including hitting the rail, so that run is best forgiven.

While he is effective over longer distances, Last Impact has the raw speed to compete over this trip particularly if he is placed further forward than he has been of late. He used to be more of a midpack runner, but has been pulled back over longer trips this season. With Ryan Moore aboard and drawn a good gate, however, one could expect him to sit midfield, from where he can be most effective over this trip.

Other longshots with a chance include One And Only, who loves Tokyo and on his best form would be right in the mix, but has unfortunately not performed up to par this season; Admire Deus, who won two G2s in good style this season, but needs to show he can do the same at Tokyo and from a bad gate, no less; and Hit The Target: the eye-catcher of the Sapporo Kinen. 

Japan Cup Top 4:
1. Last Impact
2. Gold Ship
3. Lovely Day
4. Hit The Target

Beauty Flame Conquers "The Beast"

Last weekend's Sha Tin meeting was rocked when reigning Horse of the Year and 1.4 favorite Able Friend finished third in the Jockey Club Sprint, the final major preparation for December's Hong Kong Mile.

In the days since his defeat, everything from him having lost his luster since his Royal Ascot defeat to concerns about his chances come the December feature have been echoed both in print and on social media. 

In reality, Able Friend's defeat was nothing more than a typical example of the cliche "pace makes the race" and perhaps stable tactics gone wrong. 

Slow out of the gates, Able Friend was forced to settle further than back is typical for him over this distance, while stablemate Secret Sham was pushed forward. Secret Sham is Able Friend's most reliable pacemaker, but while he has tactical speed over 1,600m, he's not overly fast. For this reason, he's by far most effective in aiding his stablemate's chances when he's pressing the leaders, ensuring honest fractions particularly in the middle sections of the race.

These tactics were used perfectly in last year's HKG2 Chairman's Trophy -- one of three races in which Beauty Flame finished second to Able Friend. This time around, however, Beauty Flame reversed the score, sitting second behind Secret Sham. When leading over 1,600m, Secret Sham is a blatant non-stayer against these types, leaving Beauty Flame in the box seat, able to control his own fate after only 200m of the race had been run. 

At that same point, Able Friend was near the rear of the field and at the first call, he found himself over eight lengths behind the leaders. 

It was in the third section (1,400m-1,200m), however, where Able Friend's race was lost as the leaders were allowed to get away with murder out in front -- eventual 1-2 Beauty Flame and Contentment clocking 23.67 and 23.63, respectively. However, unlike "sit-and-sprint" type races where Able Friend's far superior turn of foot would typically see him through regardless, the faster nature of the race at the start had resulted in such a strung out field that Able Friend in seventh place still had five lengths to make up.

From that point on, it was "garbage time", as we say in American sports. Able Friend finished the race in 21.87, the second fastest final sectional of the race and over 0.4s faster than the 1-2 finishers. In just 200m, he made up three and a half lengths and did so along the rail -- a position from which he is clearly not as effective, mainly due to his large build. 

Whether or not Able Friend will win the Hong Kong Mile remains to be seen, but this performance showed exactly how the best horse can be beaten without running significantly under par. This is particularly the case in a jurisdiction like Hong Kong, where pace plays an integral role in turf racing -- which, for the most part, differs from Northern Hemisphere racing over the same surface.  

The lesson to be taken from Able Friend's weekend fiasco is that when analyzing form, don't look for the best horse, per se. Instead, look for the best horse given the conditions of the race. The crux of these races are about the match-ups of the horses in the field and the race shape created as a result. 

Or, in the spirit of Vitas Gerulaitis, maybe it's as simple as, "Nobody beats Beauty Flame four times!" 

Either way, Able Friend is still clearly the one to beat in December and this result won't cause me to think otherwise.

Friday, November 13, 2015

HKJC The Panasonic Cup (11/14, R8) Preview

They say pace makes the race and that's undoubtedly the case with this week's Panasonic Cup (1400m, Sha Tin) in which a slow tempo appears more likely than not without a regular leader in the field.

With the light weight and a wide draw, Dashing Fellow figures to take up the running, but he was urged to lead in his most recent outing, run at a slow tempo overall, so he won't by any means be winging it on the lead. Happy Yeah Yeah, a 1200m specialist who was pushed to lead in a dirt trial recently, will also likely head towards the lead. Others who could be expected to roll forward into pressing positions include Divine Calling and perhaps Super Lifeline, who was just off the pace in last season's very slowly run Prince Jewellery & Watch Premier Cup and gets Neil Callan aboard for the first time. The latter is a one-paced individual, however, so unless he's urged to lead, this race shape would be an unfavorable one with regards to his chance of winning. Of even greater concern for Divine Calling and Super Lifeline would be their weight carried, as they'll both be conceding weight to two up-and-coming runners in Blizzard and Sun Jewellery. 

Blizzard has thrived in slowly run affairs thus far in his Hong Kong career and although he's impressed visually, his furious closing runs out wide need to be viewed in this context. He improved for the step up in trip to 1400m, however, when beating highly regarded Thewizardofoz and he's drawn a much better gate than has been typical for him. He figures to get a nice tracking run on the forward end of midpack, but if they meddle out front, traffic could become an issue for a horse who takes a bit of winding up. 

Instead we'll turn our focus to Sun Jewellery who has done nothing wrong in three local starts and is drawn perfectly in barrier one. The progressive son of Snitzel has gate speed and was near the pace in his second start, which was run at a very solid tempo from the start. He has the potential to be either on the lead or more likely in the box seat just behind the front runners. He appears to be entering this -- his seasonal reappearance -- relatively fit in spite of a small setback which delayed his start to the season. Perhaps he'll be the one to avenge his stablemate's loss to Blizzard. 

Some added value may be found via Apollo's Choice, who enters this light in the weights and second-up after running well enough in his foray on the dirt over a much too short 1200m. He showed good enough early speed for a turf horse and despite losing momentum when short of room at the top of the straight, he ran on fine late. He probably needs to get back up to 1600m to find his best, but this looks a perfect storm of a race conditions-wise for him to make the frame. 

Picks and Fair Odds:
#5 Sun Jewellery (1.8) 
#9 Apollo's Choice (21.0)
#7 Blizzard (4.5)
#2 Super Lifeline (17.0) 

Suggested Play: 5-9 quinella and 7-9 quinella; 5,7,9 / 5,7,9 / 2,5,9,7 trifecta

Candice's spot plays for every Hong Kong race meeting can be found on the Horse Player NOW BUZZ

Tuesday, November 3, 2015

My Thoughts on Michelle Payne and the Battle of the Sexes

In a breakthrough year for women in sports, another monumental accomplishment was achieved when Michelle Payne -- a 30-year-old veteran of the sport -- became the first female jockey to win the Melbourne Cup.

Following her victory, Payne had a stern message for not only her peers in the industry, but the sports world, as a whole.

Payne continued on to say: 
“I would like to say that, you know, it’s a very male-dominated sport and people think we are not strong enough and all of the rest of it ... you know what? It’s not all about strength, there is so much more involved, getting the horse into a rhythm, getting the horse to try for you, it’s being patient and I’m so glad to win Melbourne Cup and hopefully, it will help female jockeys from now on to get more of a go. Because, I believe that we sort of don’t get enough of a go and hopefully this will help.”

For these words to be uttered by a woman who has lived and breathed the sport since her childhood, whose siblings were also trained as jockeys and whose brother -- who suffers from Down Syndrome -- and strapped the very horse to win "the race that stops the nation" is as momentous as it is eye-opening. 

While strides have been made in recent times, there is little doubt that stigmas against both sportswomen and those who are disabled exist and yet with one win via a 100-1 longshot, the message that anyone can accomplish their dreams no matter the obstacles thrown in their way was displayed in front of one of the larger international audiences of the sport. 

The fallout has been massive with several applauding Payne's comments and others deeming them misguided or poorly timed. Questions of whether or not the sport is truly chauvinistic have been raised, again with wide-ranging responses. Blaming her for what some unfairly deemed as speaking out against the sport, however, is misguided. 

The fact of the matter is that these sorts of topics are never going to result in a singular answer. As easily as I could find five people who would say that horse racing -- and the world for that matter -- is full of male chauvinistic pigs, I could find just as many who would disagree completely. 

There is no universal truth. In this instance, the only truth is her truth. 

If Payne indicates that in her experience she feels she had to overcome her gender in order to achieve her goals, then from her perspective the sport is in fact chauvinistic and nobody should try to tell her otherwise. While others may not share the same experiences as she has within the industry, to say someone shouldn't feel discriminated against because it's not a universal truth for all is inappropriate.

As far as the timing of her comments is concerned, it's worrisome that critics have deemed said timing selfish, saying she should be a more graceful winner. It's when given this platform that role models in any community should speak out either against what they feel are injustices or to inspire the next generation. 

In a few short lines, Payne did both and, dare I say, taking the time from what was easily the biggest moment of her career was not only selfless, but it's indicative of her deep-rooted love for the sport. For her to choose a platform as large as the winner's enclosure at Flemington following a historic victory deems her message of such importance that she felt it worthy of an international audience of millions. Should one struggling young woman -- who has perhaps faced similar challenges to Payne -- find her dedication to the sport reinvigorated, the goal was achieved. 

Payne is a living example to young girls riding ponies that it can be done. Even they can win the nation's biggest race and her words merely back up her actions. 

Whether or not horse racing is universally a chauvinist sport should not be the takeaway from this statement. Instead, Payne let it be known that no matter what obstacles a woman faces, even she can win the big one. 

Monday, November 2, 2015

Melbourne Cup 2015 Picks and Plays

This year's edition of "the race that stops a nation" looks a wide open one despite the market being firmly in the corner of Japanese raider Fame Game. If you're a follower of mine on Twitter (@chare889), it's no surprise that I'm leaning towards Hartnell in this spot.

A useful type in England with form through the likes of Snow Sky, Postponed, and Prince Gibraltar, Hartnell has always looked an outright stayer, but he was rarely given the opportunity at those events during his English career. His victory in the Queen's Vase was the biggest indicator of his staying ability and while it's debatable whether or not he truly stayed that trip, a questionable two-miler in Europe typically will stay the trip in Australia.

In four runs during the Australian Autumn season, his highlight came in the G1 BMW where he showed a solid sustained closing finish en route to defeating To The World, who previously had been second to Gentildonna in the G1 Arima Kinen. While his G1 Sydney Cup was disappointing after he struggled to settle throughout when questionable tactics to go to the lead versus the quality of competition were applied. He had led versus softer company in the past, but it's always been clear he's best when held just in behind the main speeds. He also pulled up lame after the race and as a result, his run there is best left scrapped.

Fast forward to this season and while he hasn't explicitly caught the eye, all three of Hartnell's runs have been solid and he's quietly been ticking over solidly en route to this, his clear goal from the day he set foot in Australia. His G1 Turnbull over 10 furlongs in particular stood out, as he was one of only four horses to break 12 seconds in his final 200m and was the second fastest finisher (behind the winner) over the final 600m. He was taken back that day due to a wide draw and compromised as a result, but that won't be an issue here. Expect him to sit near the forward end of midpack, which is a position which much better suits him tactically, as he doesn't posses the turn of foot to win from the rear.

Following a solid fifth in the G1 Cox Plate, Hartnell moves back to Flemington, a track which clearly suits him better than Moonee Valley, and the step up in trip is exactly what he needs. Subtle gear changes involving his bit and noseband have occurred, but with him steadily improving as the season went on, there's no reason to be concerned about said changes. Godolphin has yet to win the Melbourne Cup, but Hartnell looks a big chance to break that streak of "close but no cigar" finishes in the biggest handicap in the world.

As for the others, lightweight The United States intrigues as one who is clearly unexposed over this staying trips. He's a horse on the rise and has improved for the steady step up in trip over which he's ran since arriving in Australia last year. Other chances include the clear favorite Fame Game, who ran enormous first up in Australia when clearly being given a run in order to protect his handicap mark and should he run back to his Tenno Sho (Spring), he'll be close at the finish. He'll be ridden more prominently here, which while it was expected is slightly concerning considering his strength is his superior turn of foot. Almoonqith's Geelong Cup was outstanding and puts him square in the mix here, as does Trip to Paris' runner-up effort in the Cox Plate for a trainer who knows how to go close in this race in Ed Dunlop. Lastly, we'll give place claims to Max Dynamite, who was dominant in the G2 Lonsdale Cup over the likes of Trip To Paris and G2 Long Distance Cup runner-up Clever Cookie.

Top 4:
#6 Hartnell (31.00)
#22 The United States (20.00)
#3 Fame Game (4.40)
#10 Trip To Paris (7.50)

My Wagers:
#6 Hartnell to win, place, show 
Exacta box: 3,6,10,22
Trifecta: 3,6 / 3,6,8,10,17,22 / 3,6,8,10,17,22,24