As a handicapper I tend to judge horses and their place in history via a number of factors. There are several winners a year of big races. Someone has to win them, and just because they do, it does not make them special. In a harness race we all know if we want to judge if a performance is superior or not, we can look at the running lines. If we see a trotter, for example, battle for the lead in a 56 middle half, and finish strong it is probably a good performance. If we see that same trotter battle with another superior horse with the same type trip, and the other horse backs up, the performance is all world.
By that barometer, Rachel Alexandra is all world.
She roared out of the gate in a fast, fast pace. She battled on the speed with 2008 Belmont winner Da'tara, Cool Coal Man, and Past the Point. She won. Those three horses finished last, second last and third last. The horse whom Tom Durkin called past the quarter as the trailer, "and it is seven lengths further back to Macho Again", came second. She was so far superior to those horses (and remember, those are older male horses) it is downright scary.
I caught a whipping post on popular harness chat board Harnessdriver.com recently. The discussion on that board from some industry insiders and whipping in general (before Ontario passed the rule) was atypical - no change was needed, whipping should not be changed, I will only bet where they can whip etc. But a funny thing happened. A week after watching it, the support for it has risen. One poster said this:
Surprisingly, with the rule change I am even more sensitive to whipping abuse. I can't stand to watch Northfield anymore.
I could not agree more. After watching drivers drive horses, and not hit them, I think the other tracks look completely backwards. It looks completely ridiculous to me to see the hauling off hitting, and before this rule I would have said that the opposite would be true.
I must say, it is common for the Ontario Racing Commission to take flack from participants. In this case they can not. They did this right, first by asking for industry and bettor feedback, second by making sure the rules were adhered to and penalties severe if one screws up, and third by letting everyone know what was happening. This is a job well done.
Last up, some thoughts on the Canadian Pacing Derby from a handicapping perspective from a blog reader named Brendan. He whipped off this email to me about "history repeating itself." He alludes to our picks here for the Haughton where we liked Shark Gesture and Bettor Sweet, and how that came about this weekend. I too thought about how much missed opportunity there was in the Derby. Shark Gesture was going to Brennan, who drives this horse aggressively as he likes to be near the lead. Bettor Sweet had a nice week off and looked to be coming into the race in fine fettle. First up and a back half of 52 assured that. He is also the Mohawk track record holder, so he likes the Hawk. In addition, both were given byes as the best two horses in FFA racing this year. What's not to like? Not much. So why did the ex pay huge and the super come back 6 grand? File that one away I guess. For the record, I went with Bettor Sweet. 8-1 was too high to pass up for this kid.
Thanks Brendan for the note:
While the developing drama down at Duquoin on Saturday afternoon/evening deservedly grabbed all the harness headlines, I was also quite intrigued by what took place in The Canadian Pacing Derby at Mohawk.
In considering the race from a handicapping perspective, there were a couple of new interesting angles to digest in contemplating this latest clash of the North American Aged Pacing Titans. 1. Was Won the West a legitimate post time favourite given the fact that although he had recently strung together a couple of successful appearances against the big boys of the division, his past performance history indicated that this type of success had not been sustainable over extended periods of time? 2. Was Bigtime Ball a legitimate competitor against the best Free-For-Allers on the continent or was he just a very good Woodbine Entertainment Group "Open" horse? Or in a single race would the "Racing Gods" allow the latter to once again beat the former as we saw in the Maple Leaf Trot with San Pail?
Of course, full encyclopedia volumes had already been written about a number of the other noteworthy competitors in the race. I seem to recall some sage advice one such scribe had written in handicapping the Haughton Memorial Final on July 11th at the Meadowlands as still very much pertinent in an evaluation of the CPD field this past Saturday night!
"I will be looking as always for value. I assume Mr. Big will be overbet, so I will look elsewhere. The trip that Shark Gesture endured last time and still hung around to talk about it has me leaning that way. He is as tough as nails, is not the now or wiseguy horse, and should he get any type of trip he should be heard from. Another one who should provide board value is Bettor Sweet. I have a feeling he will be better this week. The odds board will tell the tale on where I go in this fantastic race."
You can correct me if I am wrong, but I seem to recall a certain horse by the name of Shark Gesture winning this year's Haughton Memorial Final. The $115.60 exactor was completed by some horse called Bettor Sweet. And finalizing the $412.20 tri was an equine athlete apparently named after a chocolate bar - Mr. Big.
Now if we fast forward to this past Saturday night, we receive our answers to our original two questions before the Canadian Pacing Derby field has even hit the three-quarter mark. Won the West has recently shown himself to be a quite a capable competitor at this level when he can sit the trip, suck along and pick up the pieces, but if asked to prompt the pace first up (see Race 10 Mohawk Sat. Sept. 5) it suddenly becomes a whole other ball game! As for Bigtime Ball, we find out very quickly that Mr. Irwin's strategy to race him exclusively in Ontario every summer may not be without merit!
When the limestone dust settles we have the top three finishers of the CPD (and please keep in mind that this is not a recording...) Across the wire first is none other than Shark Gesture. Completing the $99.70 exactor, yes you guessed it.... Bettor Sweet. And for those interested in collecting on a $765.00 tri ticket all you need to know is... "When you're this Big they call you Mister!"
Unfriggin' believable! The top three finishers from a stakes race contested eight weeks earlier - come across the finish line in the exact same order and the tri almost pays double what it did in the Haughton!
Now, regretfully I did not have a parimutuel interest in Saturday's CPD. The sole purpose of my note is to point out that from time-to-time history does seem to repeat itself in this game and thus having a good memory can often be as good a handicapping tool as any!
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