The Dirt Mile has always been something of a consolation prize for horses that are not good enough to point for the Classic and not fast enough to point for the richer Sprint. What we usually are left with in the Dirt Mile is a mishmash of contenders from across the county who must either stretch out from a sprint or cut back from a route in order to fit into this in-between spot in the Breeders’ Cup.
The 2016 Dirt Mile champion, Tamarkuz, knocked-off a field that included Gun Runner and heavily-favored Dortmund and, in so doing, ended a two-year run of extreme chalk in the race. Goldencents captured this race in 2013 and 2014 (paying $9.60 and $3.40 to win, respectively). He was followed by Liam’s Map, who was by far best in 2015, to the tune of $3.00 to win.
Looking at the past results of the Dirt Mile, whether it was run on dirt or all-weather, a few trends jump out at you as a handicapper. These tips can help you narrow down the field in the Dirt Mile. There are now 10 years of Dirt Mile results to comb through for trends.
Here is a summary of what these trends point to in the Dirt Mile:
- Bet Horses with winning route ability, not Sprinters.
- Hot paces usually cook the speedsters in this race, so look for stalkers/closers.
- Look for a price and bet against underlays, particularly Baffert underlays.
Before going any further, it should be mentioned that Goldencents was a repeat winner of this race who bucked the trends, thanks in part to strong early speed biases at Santa Anita on the Fridays of the 2013 and 2014 Breeders’ Cups. This teaches us, among other things, that handicappers have to be keenly aware of track biases and other factors affecting the results earlier on Breeders’ Cup weekend (and on the card) before proceeding.
But back to the angles: In the first six years of the Dirt Mile, the race was won by a route horse cutting back in distance rather than a sprinter trying to stretch out. Horses that have performed well in longer races, but exit one sprint prep are okay too. This was the case with Goldencents, who had sprint prep races before winning the 2013-14 Dirt Miles, but was already established and proven as a high-quality mile and route performer during his career.
The 2016 winner, Tamarkuz, was a true-blue miler and came into the Dirt Mile off a troubled second-place finish in one of this race’s prime prep races, Belmont’s Kelso Handicap. Liam’s Map completely fit this category in 2015. He was a route horse exiting a Grade 1 win in a two-turn 1 1/8-mile race.
The pace of the Dirt Mile is always blazingly-fast for a two-turn race and sprinters just can’t cut it going that fast for that long.
This is the number one most effective handicapping angle in the short history of the Dirt Mile: Bet horses with proven route ability, even if their last race was a sprint, because contenders need enough “bottom” to be able to withstand a fast pace all the way to the finish.
The presence of stretch-out sprinters in the Dirt Mile every year guarantees the pace of the Dirt Mile will be blazingly fast. This being the case, closers get great set-ups in the Dirt Mile. In 10 editions of the Dirt Mile, the race has been won by a stalker or closer seven times. The exceptions were Goldencents, who was the only horse in the history of this race to be dominant on the front-end (with the help of speed biases). The other was upset pace-pressing winner Tapizar in 2012.
The ideal type of horse in this race seems to be one that can stalk the pace or rally from farther behind. The stretching-out sprinters in this field will bottom-out and cannot close; and the speed horses get cooked on paces that tend to be way too fast.
Therefore, expect stalkers or closers to be the main candidates to win the 2017 Dirt Mile. Expect these horses, along with perhaps one quality front-runner, to capture all major spots in the exotics. Betting speedsters or stretch-out sprinters does not appear to be the way to cash in the Dirt Mile.
Finally, aside from aforementioned big favorites Liam’s Map and Goldencents, as mentioned above, the Dirt Mile typically goes to a longshot. In fact, a price horse scored again in 2016 and the average Dirt Mile winning payoff is $23.60 (about 10-1 odds). When you remove the shortest-priced and longest-priced winners from the equation, the average payoff is still $19, or around 8-1 odds.
We can say that, ideally, you are looking for either a clear standout horse that is a single in your exotics like Liam’s Map or Goldencents, or, absent that, a contender that is in the 10-1 odds range.
In the list of 2017 Dirt Mile contenders, we have horses exiting wins in most of the year’s key middle-distance races including the Metropolitan Mile, Belmont’s Kelso Handicap, Churchill’s Ack Ack, Saratoga’s Allen Jerkens (formerly the King’s Bishop), plus the winner of the Governor’s Cup at Remington Park and the top finishers from the Awesome Again at Santa Anita.
The key prep race winners will all be trying to defeat the likely favorite of the 2017 Dirt Mile, Accelerate, who hasn’t finished off the board in six 2017 starts, including a win over Arrogate in the San Diego Handicap at Del Mar.
You can poke holes in the credentials of most other major contenders in the 2017 Dirt Mile. Mor Spirit won the prestigious Met Mile for trainer Bob Baffert, but that was in June and he has not run since and will enter the Breeders’ Cup without a prep.
Sharp Azteca is a top-class sprinter, and did stretch out to win Belmont’s key prep for this in the Kelso Handicap. As a sprinter trying to stretch out, however, Sharp Azteca does not fit the profile of a winner of this race. Also note that the Kelso is a one-turn race, and the Dirt Mile at Del Mar will be two turns. Two turns is also a problem for Practical Joke, who is 5-for-5 going one turn but 0-for-5 at two turns. The Jerry Hollendorfer-trainer Battle Of Midway will attract a lot of money at the windows, but he enters off a loss in the Oklahoma Derby with only a 91 Beyer speed figure.
Horses coming into the Dirt Mile the right way — with the right profile and at the right odds — include some lower-profile contenders and offer some alternatives to Accelerate. They are:
- Awesome Slew, who was cut back and converted to a late-running, middle-distance horse this year for trainer Mark Casse. He lost to both Mor Spirit and Sharp Azteca in the Met Mile (one turn) earlier this year, but has improved since then, beaten only by Drefong in the seven-furlong Forego at Saratoga and, then, scoring in the Ack Ack at Churchill on Sept. 30.
- Iron Fist, who is flying under the radar but, nevertheless, earned his way into this field for Steve Asmussen with wins in a variety of types of races this year in the Maxxam Gold Cup at Sam Houston, the Evangeline Mile Handicap, the Cornhusker Handicap at Prairie Meadows and, most recently, in the Governor’s Cup at Remington. Also placed in the West Virginia Governor’s at Mountaineer and is a force around two turns at distances from 8 to 9 furlongs.
- Giant Expectations, who will be a price for Peter Eurton coming off a fifth-place showing in the Santa Anita Sprint Championship, but this is a horse that is better with more distance and his profile is similar to that of Goldencents, who cut back into the SA Sprint Championship and lost that race twice before coming back to win the Dirt Mile both times in his next start.
Box Accelerate, Awesome Slew, Iron Fist and Giant Expectations, and use all four of those candidates in your multi-race wagers.