An Oscar For Alphie

by John Piesen 

No disrespect to Andy Beyer, whom I consider second to Ray Kerrison as the best turf writer of our generation, but I often question the fascination with the Beyer numbers, which are so highly-regarded as a handicapping tool by horsemen and horseplayers alike.

For example, if I had been Beyer-hopping, no way do I release Alphie's Bet in the Sham Stakes last Saturday at Santa Anita. After all, Alphie's last-race Beyer of 65 was a dismal 65, by far the worst in the 10-horse Sham field, and his prior numbers were a meager 78, 60 and 58.

But no one told Alphie's Bet that the Beyer Boys gave him no chance.

As far as I was concerned, Alphie's two-back, fast-closing second to the unbeaten Caracortado was miles more significant than his numbers.

Breaking from the outside gate, Alphie raced three and four-wide the entire nine furlongs under jockey Solis, and still blew 'em away through the lane to get home at $19, which so happened to be the highest win-mutuel in the dozen stakes races run nationally thatafternoon.

Alphie's victory rewarded followers of the red-hot John Piesen Hot Line (888 612 2283) with that $19 payoff -- and when Setsuko, the 5-2 favorite, clunked up for second, an $81.80 exacta.

And when I say red-hot, I'm understating the fact. I've hit seven of the 10 Derby Prep races thus far in the Season of Piesen, with three biggies coming up this weekend -- the Rebel at Oaklawn Park, the San Rafael at Santa Anita, and the Tampa Bay Derby at Tampa Bay Downs.

Moreover, the JPHL is batting at a .440 clip the last three weeks, and has picked at least one winner a day -- from an average of three picks -- for 12 straight days. No. 12 was Sunday in the first at Aqueduct when Bailzee ($7.80) blew away a 1-5 shot.

The thread in the three 3-year-old Saturday stakes coming up will be old friend Todd Pletcher.

Normally, I would take a stand against The Toddster, who does tend to get overbet. But maybe not. Pletch seems to have the Midas Touch this year on the Triple Crown trail so it might be easier to join him than to try to beat him. We'll see. Saturday is a long way off.

Then again, there is Alexis Barba, a southern California trainer who, last year, saddled a total of four winners from 47 starters. Hell, The Toddster calls four winners a bad day.

But last Saturday was Ms. Barba's day to shine. She saddled two 3-year-olds on the 10-race program at Santa Anita. One was Alphie's Bet. The other was a maiden named Make Music For Me in the $60,000 Pasadena Stakes.With Mike Smith up, "Music" got up late to nail the odds-on Macias at a $15.40 mutuel.

Despite their glorious Saturday victories, Alphie's Bet and Make Music For Me didn't crack any Derby Top Tens as far as I could see. But who knows? Maybe they will run one-two as the 6-5 coupling in the Santa Anita Derby, and head to Louisville as media darlings. Then again, maybe they were one-trick ponies, never to be heard from again.

We'll learn more on April 3.

Although Baffert got beat with Macias, as well as with The Program in the Sham, the day was hardly a total loss for Bullet Bob. After all, he won the Santa Anita Handicap with Misremembered -- named for Roger Clemens' explanation of his drug situation to a Senate committee -- and the Azeri at Oaklawn Park with Freedom Star. That easily could have been two more winners on the JPHL. If you read between the lines last Friday, you would have seen that Freedom Star was a likely candidate to wire the Azeri under Borel. And JPHL selection Neko Bay came flying for second to Misremembered at 7-1, beaten a half-length.

As for this Saturday, those three 3-year-old stakes will take a back seat to the season debuts of Rachel Alexandra and Zenyatta. They already drew the Fair Grounds Ladies, and Rachel pulled the two-hole in a field of five. Zenyatta is expected to have five rivals in the Santa Margarita Handicap at Santa Anita at a generous 127 pounds.

The racing world obviously will be holding its collective breath that the two superstars will take care of business, and emerge unscathed so that the countdown to the Apple Blossom Invitational on April 9 at Oaklawn Park in Hot Springs, Ark., can really pick up steam.

What a weekend that promises to be: The Masters, the first weekend of the baseball season...and the Race for the Ages.

Meantime, this is the time of the year when the riders of potential Triple Crown runners commence to get dumped for higher-profile whippersnappers. And sure 'nuf. In the last 48 hours, we saw Terry Thompson lose the mount on Dublin to Corey Nakatani for the Rebel, and Jeremy Rose get replaced by Calvin Borel on Jackson Bend for the Wood. The Rose call was not unexpected. After all, in this game, two strikes and you're out.

But I was surprised and disappointed by the jockey switch on Dublin. At first, I thought it was payback from D. Wayne for Thompson's decision to keep his Oaklawn commitments (see Just Jenda) last Saturday rather than make the trip to New York to ride Wow Wow Wow for DWL in the Gotham. As it turned out, Nakatani took the call, and did WWW no favors by running him into the ground the first half-mile.

But I was wrong.

I learned that the jockey-change call came not from Lukas, but from the owners of Dublin, who noticed that Nakatani was No. 1 in the OP standings, and Thompson No. 2. Makes you wonder why some of these owners leave their brains at the front door.

There's no doubt that Dublin is a serious horse. When the wagering concluded last weekend on Derby Future Pool 2, Dublin was listed as the 10-1 fourth choice -- behind the mutuel field (3-1), Eskendereya (5-1) and Lookin at Lucky (9-1).

This should be some kind of a Rebel, starting with the Big Three of Lookin at Lucky, Dublin and Noble's Promise, the current occupant of the one-slot in our Derby Top Ten. That doesn't mean Noble's Promise is going to win the Rebel. There's always the chance that I'm over-rating him, and, let's be real here, there's no chance that trainer McPeek will have him at his peak for a season bow off a three-month layoff.

Speaking of the Rebel (and the Apple Blossom) reminds me that isn't it about time that the national media recognize the exact location of Hot Springs. The latest example: The New York Daily News is locating a current college basketball tournament in Hot Springs, Arizona! Then again, it's second nature to me, since I vacation in Arkansas, follow Razorback football and--most importantly--stay close to the action at Hot Springs. I'm excited and looking forward to the Race For The Ages in my second hometown.

That said, here's my updated Derby Top Ten:

1. Noble's Promise McPeek Arkansas Worked bullet 1:00 for Rebel.
2. Dublin Lukas Arkansas Will rider change help?
3. Eskendereya Pletcher Florida Went :49 half for Florida Derby.
4. Uh Oh Bango Owens Arkansas Facing big boys in Rebel.
5. Lookin at Lucky Baffert Arkansas The Champ returns in Rebel.
6. Uptowncharlybrown Seewald Florida Tampa Bay Derby key test.
7. Rule Pletcher Florida Worked :48 half at The Palm.
8. Alphie's Bet Barba California Santa Anita Derby is next.
9. Super Saver Pletcher Florida Went five in 1:00 at The Palm.
10. Awesome Act Noseda New York Will be the Wood favorite

On the fringe: Discreetly Mine, Caracortado, Tempted to Tapit, Radiohead.

Thanks for tuning in. Needless to say, don't forget to check my selections here on-line or on the John Piesen Hot Line, and see you back here Friday for a detailed look at Super Saturday.


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