Melatonin gets perfect setup at generous odds in Big 'Cap

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TwinSpires Staff

March 17th, 2016


I have written in the past that for various reasons, we spend as much time handicapping jockeys and trainers as we do the horses themselves.

Since today’s horses race so infrequently, compared to only about 30 years ago, we are left with small samples to make judgments so the trainer, and to a lesser extent, the jockey becomes paramount to our analysis.

Another aspect of trying to pick a winner in a given race is the actual race itself. To be successful, you have to handicap the race itself as well as the horses, and their connections, that are in it.

Case in point was last Saturday’s Santa Anita H. (G1). Still run for a $1 million purse, it has been hurt by the $10 million Dubai World Cup (UAE-G1). Even before Meydan racetrack switched to a dirt surface, many of the top handicap horses were going over for the big pot of gold.

For a long time, it was the perfect prep for Dubai but with trainers wanting more time between races, it began to fall out of favor. Now, with a dirt track to race over for racing’s biggest prize, the Santa Anita Handicap just ain’t what it used to be.

If you understood this before last Saturday’s renewal, you had a chance to get a juicy winner that paid $34.60.

Saturday’s renewal of the Big ‘Cap was one of the weakest in recent memory. There were only two Grade 1 winners in the field of nine – 7-5 favorite EFFINEX (Mineshaft) and HARD ACES (Hard Spun). IMPERATIVE (Bernardini) was a millionaire but has not won a race in two years.

Effinex looked legitimate at the distance but trainer Jimmy Jerkens is not one that like to ship cross country. Like his legendary father, Allen, Jimmy likes to race out of the barn he is at and Effinex’s original plans at the start of the year were to go to Dubai. Now, here he is at Santa Anita on a track that plays kind to speed.

If you agree that this year’s renewal was a weak one, MELATONIN (Kodiak Kowboy) comes into play. A confirmed sprinter on dirt, turf and synthetic for the first nine starts of his career, he returned off a three-month layoff here against allowance foes in his two-turn debut and romped by almost four lengths.

Despite a modest pace, he earned a career-best BRIS Speed rating of 100 but considering it was the first time he was trying it and the brief layoff, it was a big effort. Now the question was could he repeat it against Grade 1 company or even improve on it?

For me, the answer was still “No” but what if he used his sprinter’s speed from an inside post with Joe Talamo and tried to hang on as long as he could? The answer would still be “No” but when you look at this year’s Big ‘Cap and put it in the context of the field’s weakness, it was possible and at 16-1 odds, worth a shot.

At the start, Joe Talamo sent Melatonin to the front and assumed the lead. He was pressured by GENERAL A ROD (Roman Ruler) to his outside and Effinex was three wide while clear on the outside.

In behind the leading trio was DONWORTH (Tiznow), who was the 5-2 second choice in the wagering. Mario Gutierrez was having trouble getting him to settle and Donworth kept running up behind the leaders forcing Gutierrez to ride most of the race with his feet in the dashboard.

The pace was legitimate with a first quarter mile run in :22.82, and the first half-mile in :46.28 gave Melatonin a bit of a breather. Usually in this scenario, the horse that is third on the outside dictates the pace since if he puts the pressure on, the second horse has to make his move.

Mike Smith was riding Effinex with supreme confidence and rode him like an odds-on favorite. Perhaps he thought Donworth was the main danger and wanted to keep him boxed in so he delayed his move to the start of the far turn. At this point, Gutierrez dropped his hands and Donworth quickly ran up behind heels and had to be checked severely.

General a Rod began to tire heading to the quarter-pole and Smith was busier than you would expect aboard Effinex. Talamo was just nursing Melatonin along on the lead and hit the top of the stretch with about a two-length lead while cutting the corner nicely.

Donworth was out of it, Effinex was spinning his wheels, Imperative was not making up enough ground and Hard Aces was making a mild rally. It all added up to Melatonin pulling away in the homestretch to win by over four lengths in 2:02.11. If you watched the gallop out, you saw Melatonin pull away from his rivals even farther.

As track announcer Frank Mirahmadi said in the stretch, “he was putting them to sleep.” It was like a harness race where a horse takes the lead and then the horse that goes first over has nothing. The horse on the lead goes on to win as the leader never gets the expected pressure.

Is Melatonin an improving horse that clearly likes going two turns? Definitely! Will he ever get a better setup than he did last Saturday? Not likely. To his credit, he did come from just off the pace in his two-turn debut and his tactical speed is always something worthwhile going long. If you had him Saturday at generous odds, be thankful. You might not ever get that combination of perfect setup and generous odds again.