Racing at Sunland Park in January. 
Racing at Sunland Park in January. |Sunland Park

Thoroughbreds: Garrity is at Will Rogers Downs and Sunland Park and tosses in a few handicapping tips

It’s sunny and dry in Oklahoma and New Mexico.

Chris Garrity

It's a Tuesday, which means the major tracks in New York, Kentucky, Florida, and California are dark, and we're back with our old friends, Will Rogers Downs and Sunland Park. The weather forecast is good in both Oklahoma and New Mexico, so we're handicapping for fast dirt at both places. We'll take a look at a couple of races at each, but we'll also use the opener at Will Rogers to break down how we typically handicap a race, and to a look at a couple of things that we consider fundamental handicapping principles.

There's a 10-race program at Will Rogers, filled with the typical hard-knocking claiming races one sees on a midweek card. But the races are deep and competitive, and many are eminently bettable. We'll start with the 1st, a $5,000 claiming 5-furlong dirt sprint for older females. A field of six is entered; post time is 2:15 pm Eastern. The tepid 2-1 favorite is the outside horse, 6-Dixie Lover, who earned a giant (for this level) Beyer Speed Figure of 69 in her last start. Despite this, we are unceremoniously and without hesitation throwing her out: this fig was earned in the slop, at a different track (Mountaineer), and she is trained by a low-percentage trainer (William Martin, who's 3 for 46 this year, a 7% win rate). This is Handicapping Principle #1 today: do not hesitate to toss marginal horses trained by low-percentage conditioners. These horses can sometimes win, but they usually lose, and on the rare occasions when they do win, it's usually at an underlaid price.

The Beyer figures for the rest of the runners lead us to the two contenders in this race: they are 2-Flyin Artie, who's 5/2, and 3-Win in the Willow, who's 4-1. The last race for both of them was at this $5,000 claiming level, and they earned Beyers of 54 and 53, respectively, in races they both won. Flyin Artie went wire to wire; Win in the Willow was right off the pace. A look back at the prior races for both suggests that these efforts, while good, were not aberrations; we think we can reasonably expect both to repeat these performances today. Both are handled by competent trainers who win at a good clip. Their current form, plus the nearly identical speed figures, and their human connections, would at first glance make them hard to separate.

But we are going to look at a pet angle of ours, one that is especially powerful in dirt sprints. We'll look at the internal fractions each of these two horses ran in their last races. Flyin Artie went 22 1/5 seconds and 46 4/5; Win in the Willow went 22 1/5 and 45 4/5. Looking at the raw numbers would seem to suggest that Win in the Willows is the faster horse, as she ran a full second faster in the first half-mile of her recent race than Flyin Artie.

But diving into the numbers shows that the raw numbers are misleading: Flyin Artie's race was on a dramatically slower racing surface, at Delta Downs, than Win in the Willow's race on the faster dirt at Will Rogers. After adjusting for the differences in track conditions, we can verify that Flyin Artie has an edge in early pace. Put bluntly, we don't think Win in the Willow can keep up with Flyin Artie.

Moreover, Flyin Artie's last race appears to be better than the Beyer of 54 would indicate. She went wire to wire on a track that was slightly biased against speed; closers did better on that card at Delta Downs. This suggests that her last race was even better than the speed figure indicates. We have two horses who have virtually identical speed figures, but Flyin Artie earned it running faster early, and on a track that was biased against her. Win in the Willows earned her figure honestly, but there is nothing in her last race to suggest that she overcame the kind of obstacles that Flyin Artie did. It's as though Win in the Willows swam in calm water, while Flyin Artie swam with a current against her. One need not be an expert handicapper to realize that when two horses finish with the same times, the horse swimming against the tide, as it were, ran a better race than the horse who ran through flat calm.

Add all this up, and we have a horse who is a very solid win pick, and we will bet her to win. None of the other five runners has much early speed, and we expect Flyin Artie to go right to the front and stay there all the way. The bet: Will Rogers Downs, Race 1, $25 to win on 2-Flyin Artie.

Race 6 at Will Rogers (post time: 4:15 pm Eastern) is a $7,500 claimer for older horses at 6 furlongs on the dirt. Seven runners are entered. We like 6-Gato American. This 4-year-old New York-bred is coming off a long layoff, with his last race in August at Louisiana Downs, but he is trained by Karl Broberg, who wins at a good rate, 25% on the year, and hits at a similar 19% clip with horses coming off layoffs over 180 days. He has a good recent workout pattern, including a bullet 4-furlong work in 46 1/5 seconds on March 27, suggesting he's fit and ready. We will bet him to win. The bet: Will Rogers Downs, Race 6, $20 to win on 6-Gato American.

Over at Sunland Park, Race 2 is a 6 1/2 furlong allowance/optional claiming dirt sprint for older horses. Post time is 3:16 pm Eastern. There are two standouts here, and they are next to each other: 2-Kristo, who's 3-1, and 3-Sombra Negra, who's 2-1. We spent a goodly amount of time trying to separate these two, but in the end we decided that we don't need to: we think it's pretty close to a cinch that these two finish 1-2 in either order, so we will box them in the exacta. The bet: Sunland Park, Race 2, $10 Exacta box, 3-4 (two bets, $20 total).

Race 5 at Sunland is a Maiden Special for horses 3 and up at a mile on the dirt. Post time is 4:34 pm Eastern. We like 3-Phoenix Fire. It's not often that you see a son of Tapit in a maiden race at Sunland, let alone one who sold for $1,25 million, but this is the deal with this 4-year-old. He's winless in eight attempts to break his maiden, which normally gives us pause; even worse, he's finished second in five of these races, which would normally make us look elsewhere. But his last six starts have all been sprints, and we think stretching out to a mile is going to be just what the doctor ordered for this boy. He's probably not going to be the kind of horse that his owners envisioned when they purchased him for seven figures back in 2016, but we think he'll finally break his maiden today. We will bet him to win. The bet: Sunland Park, Race 5, $30 to win on 3-Phoenix Fire.

That's all for today. Good luck at the windows.

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