Although full fields help bettors find value, they sometimes also create a situation where too many horses appear to be viable contenders. A more patient horseplayer will wait for a race where the outcome is clear and his or her opinion is strong rather than take a swing.
Friday night's $250,000 Iowa Derby at Prairie Meadows looks like that type of race. It features 12 horses and gives the opportunity to find a value-oriented price but, for this handicapper, it looks too evenly matched to play with any confidence.
But a difference of opinions is what makes this game go. Let's discuss the top contenders, along with a drawback to potentially playing each.
Top Line Growth is my tepid top selection. In his June 8 allowance victory at Laurel Park, he won by eight lengths and earned a 117 speed figure from TimeformUS. While he defeated mostly weak horses, it is notable he put away Trifor Gold with ease on the turn and coasted home in a hand ride.
Only two races ago, Trifor Gold outfinished Top Line Growth for fourth place after setting the pace in the Sir Barton Stakes at Pimlico. Top Line Growth made a middle move around the far turn and then hit a wall in the stretch.
Both horses were tired, as the presence of King for a Day, who of course went on to beat Maximum Security, made winning the race unrealistic. But Top Line Growth could not even outfinish Trifor Gold, even though Trifor Gold contested the pace and had the right to fold.
Which version of Top Line Growth will show up on Friday? That remains a big question, but another 117 on the TimeformUS scale could be enough to win.
Mr Money Bags is the next horse to discuss, and he sports some impressive TimeformUS numbers from Sam Houston Race Park.
On Feb. 23, Mr Money Bags received a 114 when romping by 11 ½ lengths in the Jim Orbit Stakes going six furlongs. He then ran a 119 one month later when he won the Groovy Stakes by seven lengths, also at six furlongs.
When Mr Money Bags stretched out in the Pat Day Mile (G3) at Churchill Downs, though, he set a fast pace and then folded quickly. Perhaps the effort gets a pass given the trouble at the break. Also note the side comment in the running line states that Mr Money Bags “broke outside rein.”
In his most recent start, Mr Money Bags won by 11 ½ lengths in the one-mile Texas Stallion Stymie Division Stakes at Lone Star Park, showing he can win a route race. He earned a 112 TimeformUS Speed Figure.
However, it looks like Mr Money Bags enjoys beating up on weak fields. While he might prove himself on this kind of stage and post a 119 again, he also looks one-dimensional with his flashy speed.
Continuing down the line, next is Visitant, who finished a fading third in the Affirmed Stakes (G3) at Santa Anita. He set the pace, which is contrary to his synthetic form at Golden Gate where he usually settled midpack.
Despite the fade, Visitant’s effort is a good one, as it came against decent 3-year-olds in Mucho Gusto and Roadster. Two races ago, Visitant also won the Alcatraz Stakes at Golden Gate while defeating future Queen’s Plate winner One Bad Boy -- although it is not a good idea to use synthetic races to analyze dirt races.
In the Iowa Derby, Visitant will revert back to a stalking or midpack position as Mr Money Bags' speed is much flashier. Will he handle getting dirt in his face if he needs to close? That is a problem with synthetic/turf horses.
With those the Top 3, these following aren't too far off given the evenly matched nature of this race.
Night Ops and Proverb finished second and third in the Oaklawn Invitational, with Night Ops only losing to Laughing Fox by a neck. Night Ops earned a 112 on TimeformUS, while Proverb earned a 111 after setting the pace.
But Night Ops returned to win a Churchill Downs optional claimer by only a half length with a 105 TimeformUS Speed Figure. Four of those horses in that optional claimer have run since then, and all of them lost. Meanwhile, Proverb went on to finish third by 8 ½ lengths in the Matt Winn Stakes (G3).
Night Opens and Proverb can win the Iowa Derby, but neither of them feel trustworthy.
Fluminense finished fifth by 11 ½ lengths in the Penn Mile on turf. He might improve switching back to dirt, as he did win by 4 ¼ lengths in his May 1 return. But he also needs to prove he can compete in a dirt route.
And Seek is the last contender to cover, and he is interesting because he only lost by half a length in a Churchill Downs allowance for older horses. Also notice that the winner, Colour Guard, got away with soft fractions on a speed-biased track. And Seek arguably ran just as well as the winner.
In this situation, you can imagine And Seek sitting three or four lengths off the pace and waiting for the speedier horses to get tired.
The rest of the field looks outmatched.
Without some scratches to bring the race more into focus, a big Iowa Derby play won't be for me. Part of handicapping and betting is knowing when certain races do not fit the eye.
Top Line Growth (6-1) is the pick. He owns the right tactical speed and would only need to repeat his last race. And Seek (12-1) is the best longshot option, as he figures to take up roughly the same position as Top Line Growth behind the speed and get an early run.