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The Pick 5 is my primary wager, even when I only have $50 in my hand I tend to swing for this 50-cent base wager. For my time, effort, and bankroll the Pick 5 presents the biggest bang for my buck.

Of course, I’ve had some success with the wager – hitting it eight times in 2017 from mid-July to late October at Belmont, Saratoga, and Keeneland. During that stretch I bet $6,300 into the Pick 5 and had a $28,000 return, cashing almost 20% of the time. Heady stuff for sure.

I didn’t even come close to that level of success this summer, hitting the wager just once for $6,500 about a month ago at the Spa. It helped get me on the plus side at Saratoga, ultimately having bet $3,000 into the meet. In going back over my betting data the last two years, I actually hit the Pick 5 on the same day, one year apart.

It’s the August 10, 2018 wager that I’m going to take a deeper dive into to explain my thinking and process for building a winning wager. While I’ll provide some insight – I hope – on general Pick 5 betting, please understand that Saratoga is a special meet and takes some specialized figuring.

One more bit of context. By August 10, I’d already been on track four times and bet it several more times from home with no winning bets to show. When I went to the window to make what ultimately would be a winning Pick 5 bet, I realized I had burned through almost of all of my $750 bankroll. I had to ask my wife for $25 to complete the $144 bet. I’ll have you know, she handed me a Benjamin and smiled – how great is that?!?

To the races

Race 6 – A New York-bred allowance for non-winners of two races at 7 furlongs. There was a field of eight with no apparent or consistent speed types amongst the group. The first step was to separate the potential winners from lifelong losers like Sicilia Mike at 1 for 26 lifetime [Fortunately for me, he waited until his next start on closing day to win at 10-1].

When I got right down to it, I had three horses in mind and made pace my primary handicapping angle. I picked two to take the lead and possibly hold on and another that had “pulled” himself to the front in his last two starts. Worrying about being knocked out in this mediocre field, I added a “just in case” horse as well.

Leap to Glory was coming off a nice maiden win where he led gate to wire. For me, the added bonus was trainer, Charlton Baker, who had some good success in 2017 bringing home nine Spa winners, two who came in on my winning Pick 5 tickets. But even though this field was weak and he fired right to the front, Leap to Glory tired in the stretch facing “winners” for the first time.

Candy Zip was my other choice to run close to the lead. He did – in third place all the way around, where he ended up finishing.

Proletariat was my toss in because I thought he might have some back class. He didn’t and never ran a step. So much for my insurance.

Zonic was my winner. He was co-choice, trained by Thomas Albertrani, who by the way only trained one winner at the Spa in 2017 and only two in 2016. This was a hurdle to get over for me, but the horse seemed too good not to include. I was thankfully through the first leg.

Race 7 – Allowance Optional Claiming going 11 furlongs on the turf. It was just a six horse field with a scratch, but I took half of them. Again, I figured pace was the dominant angle.

Empress of the Nile was the chalk, was getting class relief, had won going long, and she seemed to overshadow the field. She hung behind the pacesetter and stayed on well enough for third, which is not good enough.

Bengala was simply a horse I was taking a flyer on in a short field. She had won convincingly in her last start at 10 furlongs. She finished last on this day.

Lady Joan, with the hope of wiring this field through the marathon distance, was my top choice and the longest odds at 8-1. She had previously shown good speed routing on the turf, but she had never been this long. In the past, her trainer, Phil Serpe, has had good success stretching runners out, couple this with jockey Luis Saez’s skill rationing out speed and I figured I was in business.

Of course the one threat I left off my ticket, Violet Blue, was coming after Lady Joan in the final furlong. Saez, to my dismay, seemed to stop riding late, but luckily the wire came up and I was through leg two.

Race 8 – $40,000 Claiming, 1 1/16 miles on the turf. On the turf at the Spa you either have to respect trainer Chad Brown or toss him and hope for an upset. I’ve had success both ways, even if it was by the narrowest margins in beating Brown.

Theaterintheround was the Brown-trainee and a tepid favorite hovering around his morning line of 3-1. You could say it was a value play for Brown. The 4-year-old was dropping from allowance company after his maiden win. Of course, he broke in the air was last early before making a sustained and wide move turning for home.

I did not have the second place horse. Instead I played the third place horse Cause Me Grief who always seemed to run well enough for a piece, a second off layoff for Bill Mott, who finished seventh and Questeq who got a curious ride along the rail before finishing eighth.

When Brown wins in these circumstances, after relief, my second thought is why didn’t I just single him???

Race 9 – $100,000 Tale of the Cat Stakes, 6 furlongs. Another small field of only five, not the optimum conditions/entrants in a Pick 5 sequence looking to a make a score.

My Boy Tate was the morning line favorite I felt I had to include. He had some class and speed and even though he was coming off a six-month layoff I thought there was an 80% chance that Tate may be able to take this field. He ran a solid second, beaten by two lengths after setting fast fractions of :22.52 and :45.14. In the paddock he needed two handlers to hold his reins circling before the race.

Always Sunshine was my second play in the field. He had beaten a decent field in a Delaware Park listed stake in his last and two back was beaten by some pretty impressive sprinters in Imperial Hint and Whitmore. Shockingly, he was still the third choice at post time, and won for fun after taking over from My Boy Tate at the top of the stretch. An aside, it was jockey Frankie Pennington’s first Saratoga win and trainer Ned Allard’s first trip to the Saratoga winner’s circle since Mom’s Command won the 1985 Alabama!

So I was through four legs of the Pick 5, which is meaningless unless you finish it out. I was live to three: the 5-2 morning line favorite, Lost in Manhattan, third choice Plebe, and 10-1 shot Veterans Beach. The will pays were $2,300, $2,700 and $6,500 respectively.

Race 10 – Maiden Special Weight, 2-year-olds, 5 ½ furlongs on the turf. Plebe ran a similar race to his first start, an unthreatening third, although he loomed large at the head of the stretch. Trainer David Cannizzo was 0-for-12 at this point in the meet and wound up not reaching the winner’s circle.

Lost in Manhattan followed suit by running his third straight subpar effort. Note to self: Asmussen-trained turf runners should be ignored next year at the Spa until he proves differently.

Veterans Beach was my lone hope who broke in the air and started eighth, ugh. He was put into contention running in third until the tiring front runner bore out turning for home, leaving a gap the size of an airport runway for Veterans Beach and rider Manny Franco along the rail. They hit the seam and took over. I cheered accordingly. Veterans Beach’s trainer, David Donk must be used in turf sprints with first time starters and those returning within 30 days. Trust me, I scored two years in a row because of him in such spots.

So considering it was $144 play (4x3x4x2x3) and I caught a co-choice and favorite in two legs, the longest shot in a six horse field, the third choice in a five horse field and a 10-1 shot closing it out, $6,500 was more than fair.

Photo of Always Sunshine courtesy of NYRA/Chelsea Durand