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Giant Killers and Graveyards

Giant Killers and Graveyards

By Jude “Pontiff of the Pick Four” Feld

The Whitney Handicap (G1) was run last Saturday and all week long at Saratoga we were treated to replays of Onion beating the great Secretariat in the historic event. It was one of Thoroughbred racing’s biggest upsets of the last century and people talked about it at water coolers, bars and kitchen tables for weeks.

Hall of Fame trainer H. Allen Jerkens masterminded Onion’s place in racing lore. It was not the first time he had pulled a rabbit out of a hat and it certainly wasn’t the last, but it was a major part of why many people who call him “The Chief,” a name he enjoys, also call him, “The Giant Killer,” a name he’s not too fond of.

By whatever name and by any standard, H. Allen Jerkens is one of the greatest horse trainers who ever lived. In his seven-decade career he has trained a mess of stakes winners and tons of winners. He has one plaque in the Hall of Fame, but they could have used several to list his accomplishments. He is thoughtful of his horses and his help, and although that doesn’t put him in a class by himself, it wouldn’t take long to call roll.

The Chief showed his stuff again on Whitney (G1) day, saddling Emma’s Encore to victory in the Prioress (G1), defeating odds-on Agave Kiss in the process. The winner was on an improving pattern of speed figures and finish positions while the favorite had tanked in her last race, but was stellar prior to that.

Captain Obvious asks, “Would you take 5-1 on an improving filly trained by Jerkens or 4-5 on a filly who might be over the top?”

Upsets like these are part of the reason Saratoga is known as, “the graveyard of favorites.” But don’t blame The Chief, blame the bettors. The public bets some serious money on some dubious selections at the Spa and that opens the door for good handicappers to reap the benefits of their mistakes.

This year, it started on opening day.

Hall of Fame trainer Nick Zito, a guy who has engineered a few upsets himself, had the talented middle distance horse Jackson Bend entered in the seven-furlong James Marvin Stakes (G3).

Zito has a legion of fans at Saratoga, which translates to shorter prices than you would expect on his runners. Couple that with a highly accomplished stakes horse, who does his best running at seven-eighths, and you have a recipe for a very short price.

The problem with this whole scenario is that Jackson Bend is a closer. He needs a hot pace to set up his late charge and there was only one speed horse running in the Marvin (G3), Pacific Ocean.

Jackson Bend was up against it when the entries were drawn, but the fans stuck with their hometown boys.

Under jockey Joel Rosario, Pacific Ocean predictably went wire-to-wire and returned a generous $14.20 to those who saw him as a pace play.

Fast forward to last Sunday’s card.

Shackleford is my favorite horse in training. He is the epitome of an “iron horse.” Trainer Dale Romans runs him frequently and in top company and my boy Shack is usually up to the task. But there is one thing I know about him. He hates the mud. I know this. Dale Romans knows this and anybody who bought a Form and saw his 0-for-2 record on off tracks should know this.

Got to hand it to the Saratoga bettors, they are loyal if nothing else.

Shack broke from the rail, languished in the gumbo and finished dead last at 6-5.

“Graveyard of favorites” my ass. Saratoga is the graveyard of silly horseplayers. Maybe that’s why the ATMs blew up on Whitney (G1) day.

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