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The Return of Birdstone

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As a racehorse, he was neither tall nor impressive. The son of Kentucky Derby winner Grindstone made headlines the day he upset Smarty Jones in the Belmont Stakes— ending the chestnut bullet’s Triple Crown dreams— and again when he sired the 2009 Derby and Belmont winners in an unlikely freshman sire’s first assault on American classic breeding. Birdstone has had a few good ones since Mine That Bird and Summer Bird graced us with their presence, but is this the year where his progeny make a serious comeback?

February is a bit early to make any Birdstone assumptions, as most little Birds don’t spread their wings until later on. Many past hopeful sons made their mark later on than February— Mountain Eagle was on the tip of many a tongue last year— but this year, as soon as Breeders’ Cup time there was at least one Birdstone making the rounds, catching even my attention.

Mexikoma is a beautiful example of a Birdstone, albeit the definition of “the little engine that could.” (Photo by Dana Wimpfheimer)

I wrote about Mexikoma with high regard going into the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile (I) back in November. Here was a small but good-looking colt out of Team Valor’s barn who wasn’t flashy like Havana, but offered a glimpse of a good two-year-old with the potential to be a nice three-year-old. Like many, he didn’t have the best race and finished 7th. But beforehand, he progressed much switching from turf to dirt to break his maiden at Delaware Park, roaring home by 14 1/2 lengths, after which he was privately acquired by Team Valor. He took the race over on the turn despite breaking from the 8-hole, and romped from there in the 1-mile event. And surprise! Through his dam, he is related to Juba! He has yet to make his three-year-old debut, but he is looking more ready every day, with 5 and 6-furlong breezes at Palm Meadows. He is entered for an allowance race on Fountain of Youth (II) day at Gulfstream Park, although he will break from the far-outside #10 post.

Conquest Titan looks to be the narrow, leggy type. Physically, he looks likely to get the distance and mature into a nice three-year-old. (Photo by BloodHorse)

The second, and one of the most interesting to burst off the Breeders’ Cup scene and into finer flesh, is Conquest Titan. He was an also-ran up until his most recent Churchill Downs race, where he crushed a field that included Gulfstream Park Derby winner General A Rod running from last to first despite slipping at one point. Racing just beyond that mark at Gulfstream in the Holy Bull (II), Conquest Titan made another impressive run from way back but was too late to catch Cairo Prince in another great effort. Imagining how much closer he could have been had he not had to circle the field so late makes me think even more highly of him. The plan for Titan is to skip the heavily-attended Fountain of Youth (II) this Saturday in favor of the April Florida Derby (I), a move that will also be mimicked by Cairo Prince.

It seems every year has a top sire or two when it comes to dazzling three-year-olds. Last year it was Midnight Lute and Into Mischief. Can this be Birdstone’s year again, during a trend where Fappiano-line horses have been prevailing very consistently? (And while perusing PedigreeQuery, I also can’t wait for a horse named Larry Birdstone to debut!)

An Interview with Ellis Starr

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Ellis Starr, best known for his well-thought out analysis process, had winner Dust and Diamonds (9-1) as his top pick in the Gallant Bloom (II).

In the racing world, the professional handicapper is comparable to the local weatherman where he is praised when he is correct in his forecasts and disregarded when he is wrong. The weatherman possibly has it better, as faith in the studious handicapper often involves some amount of money that is won or lost in a game determined by patterns, luck, and athletes who cannot speak.

Personally, I don’t have very many go-to handicappers when in search of a second opinion on a given race, but Ellis Starr is among the highly-regarded few at my fingertips, and not just because he represents my go-to source for past performances at Equibase. Known as the “Ubercapper,” Ellis was right on cue in winning the $10,000 first prize of the Belmont Stakes Day Derby Wars shootout, and was the only public handicapper to nail the top 3 finishers in order in the 2009 Belmont Stakes (Summer Bird, Dunkirk, Mine That Bird). His motto is forever "Friends Don’t Let Friends Play Chalk."

Galloping Hat Rack: Thank you again for agreeing to answer some questions, Mr. Starr! Did you see yourself becoming good enough to be a professional handicapper or is your success with the ponies all a surprise?

Ellis Star: Not either really. As with many things in life, my career resulted from a series of events over the course of many years. First, when in another line of work meeting people that took handicapping and wagering a bit more seriously than casual fans. Second, meeting a man (Dick Mitchell) that was to become my mentor. Third, going to work for TrackMaster and moving into the racing information industry. Fourth, discovering my passion and talent for handicapping and teaching others.

Speaking as one of many people who are just getting a hang of the handicapping game, how do you approach analyzing a race? What do you do when you’re having trouble figuring out a particular race? (If such a thing happens)

Handicapping is mostly art, not science. That shifts later in the process when it comes time to determine if/when to wager. Horses are athletes, so my approach is to look at their performances in situations similar to today’s race (distance, surface, track) and estimate whether those races can be repeated. If so, then to match up the two, three, four or even more representative efforts of various horses to determine which one has the highest probability to win, then second highest, and so forth.

This is done asking the question: “Is there an effort from a horse’s past that if it repeated today it would be competitive?” The second question is “Can it be repeated today?” and the third is “How good is that horse’s expected effort versus the expected effort of another horse that might be competitive today?”

There are many races that are tough to decipher such as maiden races with a majority of first time starters. Those races just require a shift in methodology (from past races to pedigree, workouts and trainer statistics). Other races can be more problematic, such as races for horses that haven’t won in a year. Although I pass few races, a high percentage of those I pass are those kinds of races.

You are one of many expert handicappers who advise against using the chalk. Are there instances in which you would be willing to make an exception?

Favorites win one-third of the time. They have to be considered “legitimate favorites” a reasonable percentage of the time. The key is figuring out when they are legitimate as well as when they are “vulnerable” or “false favorites.” When a favorite sticks out, I say so, suggesting alternative ways to profit from the race or to pass the race. Alternative ways to profit from a race with a legitimate favorite include using it on pick three tickets or using it in an exacta in the win position with a number of horses in second, trying to get a much better return on your investment then you would on a win wager of the same amount.

Do you have any “memorable” long shot picks from the past that won?

Human nature is that big wins stick out, although not necessarily a particular long shot. I still remember the 1994 Kentucky Derby when I believed strongly that Go For Gin would win and Strodes Creek would run second or third. I played the trifecta many times that day and it still sticks out in my memory in terms of a big win. This year I was lucky enough to win a handicapping contest in June and one of the horses, Mr. Ornery, who returned $83.40 to win, is a horse I’ll never forget.

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The all-important question: Who are some of your favorite horses?

A.P. Indy was one of my favorites. Cougar II was probably my all time favorite from my youth. A remarkably intelligent horse, he would almost always come on the track without a pony and stop numerous times in front of the grandstand, turning to the crowd to get applause, before continuing a few more yards down and do the same thing. His stretch runs were breathtaking.

Thank you again to Mr. Starr for his time and his insightful comments! You can follow him (and get some of his choices) @Ubercapper!

A Summer Bird colt

A Summer Bird colt

The whole crowd went “Aww” when Kent Desormeaux gave Summer Bird a big hug following their win in the 2009 Travers Stakes.

The whole crowd went “Aww” when Kent Desormeaux gave Summer Bird a big hug following their win in the 2009 Travers Stakes.

Just being with him made me happy. You see, I wasn’t just his trainer. I was a fan of him.

Trainer Tim Ice of his charge, Belmont Stakes winner Summer Bird

Obsessively providing a comprehensive and personal glance at the sport of kings through original photography, handicapping analysis, editorials, and much more.

Tracks visited: Calder, Saratoga, Belmont, Suffolk, Aqueduct.


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