By Jonathan Stettin
A few weeks ago when we were discussing the array of handicapping tools available today, we spoke of the sheets and touched on the “bounce” theory. Today we will go further into the bounce or regression of a horse and how to spot when it is coming. As you will recall, one of the biggest benefits to proper sheet or Thorograph reading is the elimination of a horse you know will not win. The same applies to a bounce most of the time. While occasionally a horse will bounce and win, more often than not it won’t happen.
Considering the nature of the horseplayer to be contentious, if you don’t believe horses bounce, this column will probably not convince you they in fact do. You also probably liked Dreaming of Julia in the Oaks last year, Princess of Sylmar in the Breeders’ Cup Distaff, Rachel Alexandra in any race subsequent to the Woodward, Social Inclusion in the Wood Memorial and countless others. Anyone who knows or follows me will know I tweeted and gave out Princess of Sylmar in the Oaks, Beholder in the Distaff, was waiting with all I had to bet Zenyatta over Rachel in the Apple Blossom, and about guaranteed Social Inclusion would not win the Wood Memorial. Horses bounce.
First off, let’s understand the true definition of a bounce or regression. It isn’t as simple as it sounds or appears on the surface. A horse that does not run as good or fast as they did last time in and of itself is not a bounce. A bounce is when a horse runs an uncharacteristically fast or strong race, or a new top, as in fastest figure ever, or a big jump up in figures from what they have been or normally run and cannot repeat or equal that race next time out. Can a horse regress and win, yes but you have to evaluate the competition he is facing and see what you think they will do or run in relation to the bouncing horse. There is never a shortcut to good handicapping no matter what tool you use. Often a regression off a very hard race lasts several future races as was the case with the beloved Rachel Alexandra. She was never the same animal after her taxing Woodward. Even time off could not restore her prior form or prevent regression.
One of the biggest factors in misleading people to think a horse will not bounce, is when a horse wins easy or under wraps as we like to say. People tend to think when a horse wins wrapped up or “geared down” there is more gas left in the tank, thus no bounce is coming. There may indeed be more gas in the tank but that applies to the day’s race at hand and not necessarily to future starts.
I remember a conversation I was fortunate to have with the late great Bobby Frankel. We had watched a horse of his, I can’t recall which one, maybe Sightseek, win a race easily, under wraps and certainly geared down in hand. He was pointing to a bigger race down the road and commented I hope I did not get too much out of her here and she doesn’t bounce on me. I pointed out how easily and effortlessly she won, and said a bounce off that type of race was unlikely. It was then I learned something that will stay with me throughout my career and if you learn it as well, there will come times where for sure you will not bet horses everyone else seems to be running to wager on that will not win. No, I didn’t learn there was nothing about horses I could tell Bobby Frankel. What he told me was, it did not matter how effortlessly a horse seemed to win, or whether they were under wraps or ridden out, a fast race with a strong number will tax a horse and set up a bounce regardless of how it looks visually. I cannot tell you how many times that exact scenario has unfolded right in front of me since that day and how lucrative and beneficial that knowledge has been. Look how easily Dreaming of Julia won that race at Gulfstream by open lengths, under wraps. Heavy favorite in Oaks next out, played basketball with all the money on her. Not a cent of it mine. It is not a coincidence many top trainers look at the sheets and Thorograph.
A great way to get a feel for a race and what it does to a horse is to watch one from the backstretch or far turn right up against the rail. It is a totally different perspective. It’s like watching a fight ringside and realizing it’s actually a fight and not a sporting event. When I was a kid I used to cut school and sneak to Aqueduct but was too young to get in. I would send people in to bet for me and watch races right up against the rail on the far turn. I think the hole in the fence I cut is still there. You could see a horse in front by five who looked strong on TV but you heard him gasping and knew he was caught by that freight train you spotted after you heard him start snarling while looking at that front runner. I would hear the jockeys yell and curse at each other, coming through, get out of my way, get off that rail. Another great experience is to watch from the clubhouse turn and get a feel for gallop outs. They too can be telling and show who got tired and who didn’t and even who was mad they lost.
How you know when a horse is not going to bounce off a new top effort is equally important and no less challenging. Again there is no avoiding the homework which is good handicapping. I have learned to look for certain triggers on both sides. In avoiding the bounce, I like to look for steady and slight progression as opposed to big jumps forward. A trainer who is more seasoned with the type of horse in question also goes a long way on both sides. Race spacing and the type of race as well as the competition also merit consideration. Workouts can be revealing if observed correctly. Then you have to ask can they bounce and still win. If the competition can’t do any better than what a horse will regress to then the answer is yes.
While this won’t be popular, California Chrome looks like a potential bounce in the Kentucky Derby. He is almost certain to regress. Can he do so and win? I do not yet know as I have not handicapped the race but there are several factors which point to regression. He is coming off three fast races so we would be asking him to hold his form a long time. We are also asking he do it over a completely different type surface than the ones to which he is accustomed. He will be facing a larger field of talented runners and a different type of pace scenario that what he has seen of late. He is shipping in late and won’t have a lot of time to acclimate to Churchill Downs and their strip. Last but not least his connections are a not frequent Derby participant which is neither a knock on their ability or saying first or second timers can’t win the thing, but rather more a point towards regression along with all the other considerations. Of course we have the last eighth of a mile as well. While his three fast races don’t scream huge new top and thus a guaranteed bounce, the thinking here is he has to come back at some point and all those other factors will tilt things that way.
Moving along, behold Beholder. She certainly looks like she is every bit as classy and fast if not faster than she was last year. A champion at two and three, there is little doubt if she stays healthy, she will be a force again at four. It is great to see that nowadays. Richard Mandella has done some of the best work of his brilliant career with this horse and I am as excited as anyone to see her strut her stuff at Belmont Park on the new Belmont Stakes super card. She should really appreciate the one turn configuration and with an outside draw will be quite formidable at the least. I don’t like to speculate on the outcome of a race this far out but it might not be a horrible idea for the Princess of Sylmar camp to start plotting some new excuses. Close Hatches is no slouch on that strip either but both those fillies lack the brilliance and speed of Beholder.
The week’s high five goes out to Imperative and his connections. This 50 thousand dollar claim from Darley took his show on the road to face Game on Dude, Long River and others in the 1.5 million dollar Charlestown Classic and got the money. It was great to see this type of accomplishment with a claim and trainer George Papaprodromou doubled his 12 year career earnings with that one race.
A bit delayed for sure but well deserved just the same and especially now. The low five goes to ATT U Verse and TVG for not getting their act together and keeping TVG on U Verse. We need more, not less coverage and I like to watch “The Works”.
Horse to Watch
Free As a Bird, turf sprinted at Keeneland and had a somewhat wide trip. This horse is still developing for patient Ian Wilkes and should be a nice turf sprinter. I think she goes forward next out.