Blame it on the trip, not the handicapper

February 19, 2016

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by Dave Little

Sometimes, there’s nothing you can do.

It’s been about 30 years since I was dumb enough to risk my entire weekly salary at the track. Experience (translation: losing my entire weekly salary at the track) and wisdom (translation: mortgage and household bills) taught me to change my ways. But that doesn’t mean I don’t like to plunk down a wager now and then.

I don’t bet an overabundance of races. When you go to the track as often as I do, the temptation is there, but for me, keeping my number of bets to a minimum tends to a have a good effect on my bottom line. I like to pick my spots.
When I win, all is well. When I lose, I usually have an explanation (translation: excuse): Bad trip. Bad driver. Bad handicapper. As a last resort, I blame myself, although it’s not all that often.

On last Friday’s (Feb. 12) Meadowlands card, I liked Major Dancer in the 12th race. A lot. The five-year-old daughter of Art Major started the year facing better stock at Yonkers Raceway, managing a second and a fifth in three starts. At that point, trainer Nancy Johansson shipped her horse to the Big M, where, as the 2-1 public choice, she finished fifth on Feb. 5 at the non-winners of $7,500 in last five starts level in what I reasoned was a better-than-average tightening mile.

Now, she was dropping to the basement condition at the mile oval, non-winners of $5,100. It should be noted that Major Dancer had earned $5,050 in her last five, so the Big M’s race office likely adjusted the condition to get the horse raced (it’s normally NW$5,000), which is always something to look for. Decent form, genuine class. Tonight was the night, I concluded. My due diligence done.

Listed on the morning line at 6-1, Major Dancer, in my opinion, figured to go off at around 2-1. She’d faced better in her previous four starts and never went off at odds greater than 7-2 in any of those outings, so when she was 8-5 as the gate sped away from the field, all appeared well. But as we all know, appearances can be deceiving.

Anthony Napolitano has been driving well at the current meeting, and he eased Major Dancer into the six hole early. Unfortunately, that’s the precise moment things went terribly wrong, due to no fault of the driver. Immediately, there were horses racing on the rim that prevented Major Dancer from entering the flow. Napolitano could not have anticipated this happening, so he was forced to wait and hope to get lucky. There was nothing he could do.

The outer flow remained sluggish down the backstretch and around the far turn as there are plenty of horses in this class that are talent-challenged. Just after the field straightened up with three-sixteenths of a mile to go, Major Dancer found herself ninth behind a wall of horses.

Napolitano steered his horse well from there, vacating the rail before finding a seam late in which Major Dancer could do her best work. She rallied well in the final eighth of a mile and finished third. Given how easily Let Her Rock won the race after sitting a perfect pocket trip, Major Dancer may not have emerged victorious, even if her trip was ideal. We’ll never know.

I felt little consolation in knowing that sometimes at a track where “trip handicapping” applies, getting a bad trip can derail your quest to cash tickets. But this trip was worse than a six-hour layover at LaGuardia.

In search of a silver lining, I concluded I’d come right back with Major Dancer in her next start at the same level. Only after I did the math, it was clearly not possible.

By closing as well as she did to finish third, she earned $840, giving her $5,890 in earnings in her last five starts. She won’t qualify for the NW$5,100 class in her next outing. Had she finished sixth, she would have. So now, unless her owners want to put her in for an optional $12,500 claiming tag (unlikely for a 5-year-old with almost $500,000 on her card), she’ll have to return to face the NW$7,500 types. Opportunity lost.

Like I said. Sometimes, there’s nothing you can do.

Horse to watch
CURFEW got gunned down by the pocket-sitting PINK PISTOL a week ago, but look for CURFEW to get some revenge in tonight’s opener at the Big M. CURFEW had gone off stride in his previous start as the 3-5 public choice and was handled with extra care by Joe Bongiorno last Friday to prevent another miscue. Look for CURFEW to go all the way from the rail as rival PINK PISTOL has drawn the dreaded 10 hole.
In the coming weeks, keep an eye out for MONTENEGRO. She was permitted to race on the lead and finished third on a night where racing on the front end was not the path to the winner’s circle. CROSBY’S CLAM BAKE is another that fits that scenario, faltering late after racing on the point.

No regular Joe
Joe Bongiorno continues his climb as one of the game’s rising stars.
The 22-year-old driver scored twice at the Big M last Friday, featuring 15-1 shot Ballare Hanover. His weekly trip to Cleveland paid its usual dividends, as Bongiorno scored three times at Northfield Park on Monday (including Talledega Hanover, who paid $55.60) before registering a double on Tuesday.

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