Some horseplayers are going to enjoy a fine payday this weekend in Las Vegas, and I’m not talking about bettors risking a few bucks on Saturday’s $1.25 million Travers Stakes at Saratoga.
The 22nd National Horseplayers Championship, usually contested here in January but postponed by the COVID-19 pandemic, is making its first August appearance from Friday through Sunday at Bally’s on the Strip.
That serendipitously surrounds the brilliant Saturday card at the Spa, which features seven stakes – six of them Grade 1s — not to mention some intriguing racing at Del Mar, including the return of Medina Spirit, still the winner of the Kentucky Derby pending a ruling on his positive postrace drug test, in Sunday’s $100,000 Shared Belief Stakes.
In the human contest, cash prizes of more than $2 million, including a grand prize of $725,000, will be handed out to the last men or women standing from the 449 individuals and 550 entries in the contest. Players also will compete for an Eclipse Award and the title of “Horseplayer of the Year.”
Several entrants are also trying to collect major bonuses tied to earlier accomplishments. Among them is 20-time NHC qualifier Sally Goodall of Las Vegas, who won $100,000 for capturing the 2020 NHC Tour and an NHC berth. She also is eligible for a $5 million bonus if she goes on to win at the 2021 NHC finals.
Because of the schedule shift, players will have the chance to feast on racing from Del Mar, Ellis Park (some irony there, as Nevada bettors can’t wager on the Churchill Downs-owned track), Golden Gate Fields, Gulfstream Park, Monmouth Park and Saratoga Race Course and Woodbine Racetrack. All but Gulfstream and Golden Gate are part of the NHC for the first time.
I’ll wait to see how everything plays out, but this feels like a great merging of summer and winter traditions. I wouldn’t be surprised if the National Thoroughbred Racing Association, which runs the NHC, elects to make the change permanent.
The 1¼-mile Travers, known as the Midsummer Derby, will be the highlight Saturday at the Spa, but it’s not the best betting race unless you think you can beat 4-5 favorite Essential Quality in the seven-horse field for 3-year-olds.
I’m not sure they can, but Midnight Bourbon (9-2), who has speed and drew the rail, could give the favorite a tussle if he can get away cleanly and not get caught up in a pace duel with Masqueparade (8-1). I’ll also use Dynamic One (6-1) in exactas with the other two, as he appears on the improve and is a strong candidate to finish second.
No serious injuries in Del Mar spill
A frightening incident at Del Mar in Race 7 on Sunday, when seven horses and riders went down, miraculously resulted in no serious injuries to horses or riders.
The accident in the sprint for $25,000 maiden filly and mare claimers occurred past the 7/16ths pole, when Sassy Chasey clipped heels with another runner and went down, causing a chain reaction that also saw Backtoflash, Whiskey Blue, Siena Silk, Renegade Princess, Phoenix Tears and Corners Up fall.
Riders Tyler Baze, Emily Ellingwood, Juan Espinoza, Kyle Frey, Diego Herrera, Cesar Ortega and Tiago Pereira all went down hard as well, but amazingly emerged relatively unscathed.
Baze, one of four jockeys taken to hospital for evaluation, was forced to take this week off to recover from body soreness, his agent Jack Carava told the Paulick Report, but no one suffered any broken bones.
The horses all were said to be doing OK the day after the race, which was declared “no contest,” resulting in all bets being refunded.
Masqueparade could have an edge in this seve- horse field due to the fact none of the others have truly shown a desire to lead early in a race. Starting with his runner-up effort at a 1 1/16th miles in March, a race he might have won if not bumped by the original winner before being place first when that one was disqualified, Masqueparade has been in front or very close the lead from shortly after the start in four straight races. When winning one of those races on May 1, Masqueparade earned a stellar 108 Equibase Speed Figure which just one point shy of the 109 figures Essential Quality has earned in three of his last four races. Considering Essential Quality will go to post as the prohibitive betting favorite, Masqueparade offers much better value because he has as much of a chance to win as Essential Quality if both repeat their best recent efforts. Although Masqueparade was no match for Essential Quality last month in the Jim Dandy Stakes when third, there was a different early pace scenario that day as another horse led and Masqueparade stalked that pacesetter before making the lead with a quarter mile to go before being passed by Essential Quality and Keepmeinmind. In this situation it could be Masqueparade who dictates the early tempo and as such he has a shot to relax on the lead and get very brave to post the upset win.
Essential Quality has now won seven of eight career starts for a bankroll of $3.5 million. His only poor effort came at the distance of the Travers when he finished fourth in the Kentucky Derby, but jockey Luis Saez hasn’t made the same mistake of getting Essential Quality hung wide throughout the race, resulting in two strong wins in a row. The first of the two came in the Belmont Stakes with a 109 figure, followed by a similarly strong effort in the Jim Dandy Stakes at Saratoga one month ago in which the colt earned a 107 figure. As such, if Masqueparade can’t lead from start to finish the horse most likely to pass late to win the Travers is Essential Quality.
King Fury and Keepmeinmind both have slight chances to win and big chances to finish second or third to complete any exacta or trifecta tickets played. King Fury came up slightly ill right before the Derby and had to skip the race, then closed very well from last of nine to get second behind Masqueparade in the Ohio Derby, earning a career-best 105 figure in the process. Not finding a race to run in after that in order to prep for the Travers, King Fury was entered in the Saratoga Derby Invitational three weeks ago on turf, a surface he had never run over previously. Finishing 10th of 11 in that race, the only thing that proved was he is better suited to dirt and so on the return to dirt and based on his effort in the Ohio Derby, King Fury could be a factor in the Travers. Similarly, Keepmeinmind missed by a half-length to Masqueparade in the Ohio Derby in June then by a similar margin to Essential Quality in the Jim Dandy, earning 105 and 106 figures, respectively, not far enough afield from the likely favorite to discount Keepmeinmind’s chances completely. Particularly the Travers being his second start of the Saratoga meeting, Keepmeinmind running as well or better as he did one month ago shouldn’t surprise anyone.
The rest of the field, with their best Equibase Speed Figures: Dynamic One (103), Midnight Bourbon (99) and Miles D (100).
Ellis Starr is the national racing analyst for Equibase. Visit the Equibase website for more on the race or to purchase handicapping products.