Over the next day and a half, you’re going to hear just about everywhere, especially on the Woodbine simulcast broadcasts and the Toronto oval’s in-house web sources (woodbineentertainment.com and tripledeadheat.ca) about how this year’s Pattison Canadian International is a great betting race. That’s only partly true.
The $1.5 million (down half a million from last year) Pattison could be a great betting race, but only if you can narrow it down to a bettable play. Just because a race features a larger-than-life field and it’s full of mostly non-claiming runners, it doesn’t automatically make it a great race to play. What if the composition of the field drives you into handicapping roadblocks using approaches you're used to and, ultimately, you wind up tearing up your tickets at the end of the 2 ½ minutes becase you made a bad decision based on bad information? There's nothing great about that.
Of course, many will say this is sour grapes on the part of the losing fraction of the pari-mutuel population. There's not necessarily true. It's only short-turn euphoria if you fluke out a profit by picking the right colour or number in a crapshoot of an event. The bragging rights expire rather quickly when you cash on a race and you can't explain to your entourage how the hell you landed on such a winner. Most true handicappers won't turn down a stroke of good fortune, but they're far more happy when the bad luck stays away and they can sniff out a winning play using first principals, rational thought and good judgment. Often Woodbine handicapper Jim Bannon discusses ‘positive choice’. After handicapping a field, if you get down to the eighth or ninth ranked runner and you’re still finding positive things to note, that’s positive choice – which is what makes a race great to handicap, and, if the price is right, to bet.
How many of the 16 runners in this year's edition exhibit this positive choice? Well, that’s all in the eye of the beholder. But, for a $1.5 million purse, the answer is not enough.
As a result, the 1 ½-mile Canadian International appears to be full of crazy pitfalls, almost crafted by design to make the handicapping puzzle nearly impossible to solve.
For starters, this year’s edition features the return of Joshua Tree, Mores Wells and Redwood, the top three finishers from last year’s Pattison. The Pattison is full of examples of horses returning to do battle in a successive year, but the race’s history doesn’t show any replication of the entire previous year’s triactor.
Use this finish last year as a starting point and you’ve hit the first handicapping hazard. The tightness of the finish in the 2010 Pattison didn’t really answer questions. In fact, it posed new more questions. Was the winner Joshua Tree the best horse. What about Al Khali, who missed the board, but endured a dreadful stretch trip. Was Redwood feeling the effects of his big win in the Northern Dancer? Did the rise of the unheralded Mores Wells off his win in Stockholm expose the mediocrity of last year’s field. An over-the-top Ontario-sired runner named Fifty Proof was able to finish a close fifth in the 2010 Pattison.
Fast forward to this year and it’s really difficult to determine how to apply last year’s performances in the Pattison. All three rivals have raced several times since. Mores Wells used the same prep he did last year, but could do no better than second this year. So, has he lost a step? Redwood followed up the International with a second-place finish in the Hong Kong Vase and then another runner-up placing in the Dubai Sheema Classic in March. In two races in July he was a disappointment and will contest the 2011 Pattison off the shelf. After a 10th-place finish in Japan, Joshua Tree also had a progressive winter in Qatar with a win and a third. He returned in August, finishing second in a compact allowance-level event and a distant third in a field of six in the Grosser Prix Baden Baden, an event which featured Danedream, who doubled up in the Prix de l’Arc de Triomphe. Before we go overboard about this frame of reference, note that Joshua Tree was 13 lengths behind Danedream. Once again, there’s some uncertainty about where Joshua Tree stands – not that there wasn’t last year when he was also an unknown commodity. Are these two on the decline? Did they have excuses? Are they ready to rebound? Wiil the three benefit from having been here last year? So there are lots of questions that need answering for horses that are going to take quite a bit of action.
What else contributes to this lack of positive choice?
Consider, first, only one horse of the 16 has captured a Grade 1 race this year. That would be Treasure Beach, who was made second-choice for some reason behind Redwood. Considering the well-respected connections and his gutsy score in the Grade 1 Secretariat, he’ll be the 5-2 favorite come post time (that’s my prediction).
Only four of the 16 entrants have won Grade 2 or 3 races at some point this year. They would be Sarah Lynx, a filly who drew the rail, Musketier, Rahystrada and the lightly-raced Quest For Peace, who wheels back 15 days from his Cumberland Lodge score at Ascot over returning Arctic Cosmos. Get the picture so far?
We touched on the recent form of the 2010 trio, but how about the field as a whole? Of the 16 runners in the field, only three enter the International off of victories. (Treasure Beach, Rahystrada, Quest For Peace). Others, like Simmard for instance, certainly show form qualifiers, having finished a close second in a Grade 1 event. Then again, the Roger Attfield trainee has his share of flaws, as well, considering he shows one allowance victory in his last 13 starts. In the 5-1 range, he’s one to avoid. But if he’s in the 15-1 range he may be worth using, particularly in the exotics.
The aforementioned Arctic Cosmos enters as a total wildcard because this is his second start of the year. He was pointed to the 2010 International off a victory in the Grade 1 St. Leger at Donacaster, but didn’t make it to Toronto. Reading between the lines, it stands to reason that he wasn’t totally cranked up off the long absence for his runner-up finish in the Cumberland Lodge. The connections had this race in mind all along. Two weeks out for a prep race still seems a touch close when you’re several time zones and an ocean away. He’s likeable, but he’s certainly beatable.
What do you do with Bronze Cannon? He enters the International off a four-race synthetic track campaign. He’s a multiple winner on the turf, on which he won the 2009 Hardwicke over Campanologist. But it’s a guessing game to determine whether he’s a fit at this time. Certainly not positive choice in his corner. His Irish-bred stablemate Mikhail Glinka falls in the same category, too. That son of Galileo’s last victory came at two miles on June 18, 2010. He campaigned in Dubai over the Winter and has had one start since, a lack-luster fourth-place finish in middle of September.
After the Roger Attfield pair of Musketier, a two-time Graded stakes winner in 2011 and Northern Dancer runner-up Simmard, the Canadian contingent appears quite thin. Kara’s Orientation will no doubt lead for as long as he can, but lightning doesn’t usually strike twice. The Sky Classic theft took place on a course far more speed condusive than what he and Emile Ramsammy will see Sunday.
Laureate Conductor, a $62,500 claim by the Bear Stables, finished fourth in the pace-less Northern Dancer. He hasn’t hit the board in a graded stakes event since the 2009 Secretariat against Take the Points.
Three-year-old Celtic Conviction always tries, but the son of Strut the Stage faces an acid test compared to the company he’s been running with. He did give up and comer Clement Rock a scare a few races ago, but that rival didn’t have the best of trips and may have been over the top.
A late entrant, Miami Deco’s last victory came in last year’s Breeders’ Stakes at the same distance. Recently he was third to Rahystrada in the Kentucky Cup Turf. He seems outclassed in this field.
Rahystrada relished the undulating Kentucky Downs course in his recent 3 ¾ length victory. Two starts ago, he was fifth, a half-length behind Wigmore Hall, in the Grade 1 Arlington Million. Having racked up $940,000, he’s certainly shown that he doesn’t need his home racetrack to perform and, in his first local start, he will be seeking to make Woodbine’s turf course the 10th different strip he’s conquered. In his lifetime, the seven-year-old son of Rahy has won turf contests at Kentucky Downs, Keeneland, Indiana Downs, Hawthorne, Arlington Park, Ellis Park, Gulfstream Park, Churchill Downs and Colonial Downs. This Byron Hughes trainee is one of the few with accolades in the ‘positive choice’ model. If the bulk of the action goes in the a few of the riskier directions, this road warrior, who is curiously reminiscent of Cloudy's Knight or a U.S-based of Collier Hill, could be an inviting price.
Essentially, the Canadian International will be a great gambling race. But that shouldn’t be confused with being a great betting race, full of positive choice and opportunities to make comparisons. North American form and European form is always very difficult to compare. There aren’t many races in the world, outside of the Breeders’ Cup, that feature such an even clash of these two worlds – with more or less half from North America and half from overseas. Will the Europeans be more at home than the locals, considering all the rain that has fallen and the European nature of the E.P. Taylor Turf that rewards that final sustained run? So, a more accurate way to describe the event is as a ‘difficult’ betting race full of uncertainty and intangible variables that may or may not become significant when the final horse crosses the wire.
That’s not to say the Pattison Canadian International isn’t a beatable race. It will be a very rewarding race for many punters. It requires some creativity to get there. A horizontal approach may be the key. Consider, with a likely Pick4 pool well over the $200,000 guaranteed, playing enough of a spread in the International that will get you through the leg. If you think that’s three, use three. If you think that’ six, then use six. A bit of chaos and even for 20 cents there could be a good payday at the end of the sequence.