Nehro, Oh I How I Love Thee!

For the sake of history, let me tell you how today went for me. I woke up at 8:30 eagerly to one of my favorite days of the year, Kentucky Derby Saturday. With two races left to handicap, I went deep on coffee and got to work. Before I knew it, it was noon, and time to place my first Pick-3 wager and bets on the first race of the day, a 5f Turf Sprint race. I hit the trifecta by boxing three horses. That never happens to me. It was an easy tri box, but was the clear play in a field where three horses stood above the rest. I was live to many more as long as my single in the Humana Distaff, Hilda’s Passion, could win. She was even money, but couldn’t hold the lead on the fast track, finishing second to the longest shot in the field. Things went downhill from there.

As a means of condolence to myself, I was given relief by the fact that the horse that ruined my perfect exacta box in the next race (Aruna to Fantasia), Aviate, wasn’t in my Pick 3 so I wouldn’t have won anyway. Fine. On to the next Pick 3. The hardest race of the day, much harder than the Derby, was the Churchill Downs Stakes, a 7f race that might have well been a Breeders’ Cup Race for the quality it attracted. I went four deep here in my Pick 3 play, and boxed the three favorites in the exacta, a pussy move if ever there was one, especially in a race with this much value. Still, I held true to my picks. I made them before the odds showed my picks to be bet down, as they were not the morning line favorites. Here Comes Ben struggled again, Smiling Tiger remained a 6f horse and in retrospect was the most beatable favorite of the day, especially at this distance. But I really thought that Captain Candyman Can, my top pick, had this race as they entered the stretch. Then, as would be the case often today, the closers came quickly. Aikenite, a horse that I have always bet against, especially on real dirt, came hard along with Apriority, a tough colt that was my only other chance to stay alive in my Pick 3 at that moment,  who came charging home as well. Photo finish. Aikenite. Uh oh. Bye bye Pick 3.

What makes gambling on horses hard is that after missing an exacta by one horse and then missing a live Pick 3 at a price, you begin to doubt your own abilities. I knew I needed the next race, the Woodford Turf Classic, and I more importantly, I knew that the scratch of pacesetter Little Nick meant that the talented Get Stormy would be lone speed in this race. He and Al Khali were the only two horses I used in the Pick 3 that at this point was defunct, and in retrospect might have been huge if it was still alive. But that’s the great thing about horse racing, it is almost a metaphor for life- you have the opportunity to take advantage of certain chances only if certain PRIOR decisions come to fruition and make it so. But, I digress. I got greedy.

In desperation, I went against the fact that I knew Get Stormy was going to win this race in a wire trip. As an 8-1 morning line horse, bet down to 7-1, I didn’t see him as value, and I was right about that part. Except for ignoring the fact that he was going to win easily. Al Khali at 16-1 looked to be the much better outright bet to me from a value perspective, and he was nowhere to be found once they started running. And instead of even putting a place bet on Get Stormy after KNOWING he was going to wire the field, I instead spent that extra money on adding an extra horse to my exacta box. That horse was Moryba, and I did it because Desormeaux was hot on the turf all day. Instead Smart Bid nipped Doubles Partner (in yet another photo finish), who actually was in my exacta box, for second, but that isn’t the point. The point is that the right play was Get Stormy to win, place and show, and to hell with trying to hit the exacta in a race this wide open.

And after all of even after all of that, and throwing some shit around the apartment, I made my Kentucky Derby bets with the utmost conviction (and to reduce chances I’d be shutout by server overload on my betting site), and got into the shower so I’d be ready to go to dinner with my wife after the race was over and I was done celebrating. I use the word “celebrating” because this is when something strange happened.

After spending nearly every minute of the past week thinking, analyzing, and even dreaming about the potential outcome of this race, not to mention agonizing over the undercard races that I spent probably 1% of the time thinking about that I did the Derby, suddenly it hit me. I was right about this race. I had picked the best horse in the field. And he was 9-1, the fourth choice in the field! Everyone else was a sucker. After a week of feeling like this was the toughest Kentucky Derby I have ever tried to predict, 45 minutes to post I as was as confident as I have been since I picked the favored Street Sense in 2007 and the overlay Monarchos in 2001 (below, in all of his Gray Glory). Nehro was going to win this race. It was an awesome feeling.

Interestingly, I didn’t feel nervous at the start. The Kentucky Derby is more about being right to me than it is about money. Maybe that is a bad thing. To me, it is more of a pride thing than a money thing. I’ll never be able to bring myself to bet enough money to win on this race as much as I can make working in the options market for a well-respected employer. And maybe that is a good thing. (Even tough boxing my top 7 in a $0.50 trifecta would have cost exactly $105, and would have won close to $1000. Point noted).  In any case, Nehro was my strong choice, and coming out of a tough #19 post position, I watched him bump hard with Watch Me Go in the #20 post, turn his head sharply to the left and break inside hard. He was much closer to the pace than I wanted or expected, but that ended up being a good thing, as the opening fractions were a crawl for this race. I predicted a :46.5 half. They went in :48.5, and any closer that wasn’t at least mid-pack had no shot at that point. Nehro was positioned well, but still about five wide to the rail, so even I wondered if the distance would be too much for him. This was his third race in the last six weeks.

Coming around the third turn, still close to the pace and five wide to the rail, Nehro made an unbelievable move. He looked like he had tons left in the tank, still running a much further distance than most of these horses that were able to secure ground-saving positions. He still had the incredibly game Shackleford to catch around the turn, but he was coming with such force and momentum that I began to brace myself with that most awesome of all feelings- picking the winning horse out of 20 possible candidates. (All of you Soldat backers, I’m better than you at handicapping).

Funny thing is, as Nehro kicked into gear and Shackleford beared down hard as they made the turn for home, I realized that my horse was fading after a wide trip and a long spring campaign. But, then, Nehro had a resurgence and overtook Shackleford. I felt I was in the clear and witnessing one of the toughest horses of my lifetime as his stretch kick was all heart, but then out of the clouds came Animal Kingdom, a lightly raced, well-bred horse that is clearly a huge talent at this distance. He was much the best. Nehro held on for second as Mucho Macho Man closed with authority, and I missed an exacta by one horse for the third time today. My place and show bets on Nehro were enough to break even on the race, but this one was very close to being a big pay day for me. I had the top 3 all in my trifecta key, just in the wrong order.

A quick note on Animal Kingdom, who ran an incredible race and was very deserving of the win. My main reason for excluding him from my exacta box (he was the last horse I left out, going with Master of Hounds instead, who  ran on well for fifth), was his slow closing fractions on a polytrack surface. I won’t be making this mistake again, as I was well aware that he had the pedigree to run a strong distance race.  Also, this is the second year in a row that the horse with the highest Tomlinson Distance figure in the field has actually won the race, and that is an incredible statistic if you think about it. Here is what I posted Thursday night:

Pros: His Tomlinson Distance figure of 365 is the best in the field, and he is clearly bred to run all day. Digging a bit deeper into his mostly turf-oriented pedigree, we see that his grandsire Candy Stripes sired Invasor, who won the 2005 Breeders’ Cup Classic, Dubai World Cup and Horse of the Year Award, and he was broodmare sire to Candy Ride, who still holds to Santa Anita Dirt record for the 10f distance. His win last time out came from just off a pretty taxing pace and he closed with authority, so he is definitely one to watch for picking off horses down the stretch. He seems to be working well over the dirt track, putting in 6f in 1:13 last week, and could be one to look for especially if the track comes up wet.

Cons: His pedigree is one of the field’s most impressive from a distance perspective, but it is still dominated by turf influences as mentioned above. He has never finished worse than second in four career starts, but has also never raced on dirt. As impressive as his win in the Vinery Spiral was visually last time out, he ran closer to a pretty hot pace and despite passing three horses down the stretch, didn’t post competitive closing fractions into that pace (:13.8 final eighth, :39.8 final three eighths). That race was run on the polytrack, so he may have to move up on dirt to hit the board.

Conclusion: Originally, I dismissed him completely based on his weak closing fractions in the Spiral, but a closer look at his pedigree and his impressive work over the wet track moved him up a bit on my list. I find him a bit more intriguing than Brilliant Speed simply because he has yet to run on dirt, so there is still potential that he could handle it well, and in theory, the pedigree is there. If he does, he may be able to grind out a good trip and find his way onto the board. He’s a live value horse that could really spice up the exotic payoffs.

Oh, for a time machine. I saw the signs. Even the word Invasor should have perked my ears up. Still didn’t think he was a candidate for the win. That’s the game though. It isn’t easy, but it sure is fun.

Bottom line is, Nehro was so impressive in this race that I can’t even get over it. This is a three-year old horse that just ran three races in six weeks and ran improving figures in each race. His wide post forced him closer to the pace than he is accustomed to, while Animal Kingdom enjoyed a ground saving trip closer to the rail. Nehro ran the whole race five wide to the rail and still had gas in the tank to make an amazing move coming for home with his amazingly long strides, and dug in hard to get past Shackleford and hold off Mucho Macho Man late as the winner flew by him. Take nothing away from Animal Kingdom, but the best horse doesn’t always win this race. Give me a match race right now, I’ll take Nehro against any male horse in the country. Let’s just give him some rest first; don’t think he goes to the Preakness. But at least I’ve got my horse for the fall. Dude is a straight up gamer.

Sleep well Nehro. You earned it, and you aren’t done yet.

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