Oddly Enough

NFL analysis, handicapping, opinion and reportage.

Gulfstream Park’s Rainbow 6 sequence Monday starts in Race 5, with post time at 4:05 p.m. Eastern. Here is a race-by-race look at the sequence, with a focus both on logical contenders as well as other horses who could be used on bigger tickets.

Horses are listed in order of this handicapper’s preference. Top plays of the day are bolded.

Race 5 (Post time: 4:05 p.m. ET).

Condition: Maiden special weight, three years old and up.

Distance / surface: 1 1/16 miles on turf.

Primary contenders:  Are We Not Men (6) is a half-brother to graded-stakes turf winner Are You Kidding Me. Steel N Pack (10) just missed in his turf debut on May 3. Skip’s World (4) has a good closing kick. Wall Street Kitten (5) is tough to leave off tickets given his trainer (Mike Maker), owners (Ken and Sarah Ramsey) and sire (Kitten’s Joy).

Others to watch: Also-eligible Shiva Ryan (13) has a pair of decent turf efforts in California to his credit. Simon Bar Sinister (12) could have license to improve in his first turf start. And Prince Warrior (8) isn’t without a chance.

Race 6 (Post time: 4:35 p.m. ET).

Condition: Maiden special weight, fillies and mares three years old and up.

Distance / surface: 6.5 furlongs on dirt.

Primary contenders: Pekinsa (8) could get an ideal trip sitting just off the speed. Miss Away (5) was fourth in a solid debut on May 4 at Gulfstream. Distinctive Lady (11) has shown improvement throughout her three-race career.

Others to watch: First-time starter One Look (4) is a wild card — her trainer, Terri Pompay, is good with sprinters. Concord Point (3) is a half-sister to Grade III-winning sprinter Fort Loudon. Quinnkat (7) is shortening up in distance.  

Race 7 (Post time: 5:05 p.m. ET).

Condition: Allowance optional claiming $62,500, three years old and up.

Distance / surface: 1 1/16 miles on turf.

Primary contenders: Joes Blazing Aaron (8) hasn’t won since October 2012, but his running style sets up well for this race. He’ll be on or near the lead early. Philly Ace (12) is the primary mid-pack threat. Alley Oop Oop (3) fits the class level well. Also-eligible Lay It Down (13) has shown major improvement since being claimed by Maker.

Others to watch: Tale of the Heart (4) has a nice closing kick. My Best Brother (1) has some back class but has been off-form recently and changes barns and racing circuits. Starship Zorro (9) could get a piece if the pace is hot.

Race 8 (Post time: 5:35 p.m. ET).

Condition: Claiming $6,250, fillies and mares, three years old and u p.

Distance / surface: 6 furlongs on dirt.

Primary contenders: Karla and Me (11) gets class relief and has a top claiming trainer (Peter Walder). Javamine (5) ran a strong race at this level on May 2, then showed nothing running back seven days later at a higher level and a shorter distance. Hard Knocking Lady (2) could improve in her second start at the $6,250 tag.

Others to watch: Double Interest (10) broke her maiden on May 3 and should be competitive with these. Broadway Secret (7) takes a logical drop in claiming price.

Race 9 (Post time: 6:05 p.m. ET).

Condition: Allowance optional claiming $25,000, three years old and up.

Distance / surface: 1 1/16 miles on turf.

Primary contenders: Cage Fighter (9) is 2-for-2 at this distance on the turf, including a win at Gulfstream on March 30.  Start Up (12) is in sharp form. Also-eligible Starship Avenger (14) will be passing horses late if he draws into the field. Balthazar (7) showed some potential last year.

Others to watch: Charlie the Boss (3) has good early speed. Dream Saturday (11) has the early foot needed to work out a good trip, but his dam has produced only dirt winners. Imaginethatmom (8) has credible turf form but will need a lifetime best race to win. War Classic (5) is stepping up in class after breaking his maiden for $30,000.

Race 10 (Post time: 6:35 p.m. ET).

Condition: Maiden claiming $12,500, fillies and mares three years old and up.

Distance / surface: 1 1/16 miles on turf.

Primary contenders: Kaluma (8) is a half-sister to Speak Easy Gal, a Grade III winner on the grass. Tohaveandtohold (5) was a solid third in her debut at Keeneland for a $20,000 tag in April. Kimberly Is That U (12) comes off a third-place finish in her turf debut, her best career performance. Senorita Sangria (6) should get a nice running position early with her speed.

Others to watch: Afleet Allie (1) must be respected; trainer Rasharn Creque has done well with a limited number of starters during this meet. Tacu Tacu Girl (9) has some turf breeding, and her owners paid $115,000 for her in September 2012. Sofialeonor (7) is 0-for-19 lifetime but has run three races this year that would give her a chance on Monday, including her last effort May 4. Also-eligible Diva With Taste (14) nearly won in her last start on turf at the maiden claiming level in April.

A few post Kentucky Derby thoughts:

— California Chrome couldn’t have deserved the win more. He fired, and so many others did not.

— The third-place finisher, Danza, looks like a very good horse. He really ran on well.

— Commanding Curve’s second-place finish is a reminder of how throwing a few long-winded closers in Derby exactas, trifectas and superfectas can play dividends. So many Derby runnings feature horses like Commanding Curve running on as others are rapidly slowing down.

— The California Chrome-Commanding Curve exacta paid 170-1 for $1.

— The Derby Beyer Speed Figure for California Chrome came back rather slow: 97. That usually doesn’t win the Derby. What does that mean about the quality of this field? Tough to say. Here’s my take: The winner is a very good horse. Commanding Curve wants every bit of a mile-and-a-quarter, which is a good sign. Danza ran really big, and Wicked Strong (fourth place) ran OK. Dance With Fate could be a very good grass horse, and the same could be said for Medal Count. I would also be very interested to see how horses like Wildcat Red, Harry’s Holiday and Ride on Curlin would fare in sprint races.

— Finally, this out of left field, but the Illinois Derby finishers (Dynamic Impact, Midnight Hawk) probably would have been competitive yesterday. I don’t think they would have won but they might have had a chance to get a check. I think both would be competitive in the Preakness, too.

A few quick thoughts on the Derby:

— I’m not convinced the pace will be blistering, but I don’t think it will be soft, either. I say the half is run in 46 and change.

— I think California Chrome will run well. He’s legit. His San Felipe Stakes performance was the best Derby prep performance. He ran the second quarter of the race in 22.5 seconds and still ran off to victory. I greatly respect him.

— I think Victor Espinoza should send California Chrome to the lead with an eye on letting him relax. If that happens, the horses who chase him in the early stages have no chance, because they can’t run with him. He’ll glide along. One of the stretch-runners will have to get him.

— Of the Arkansas Derby horses, I believe Tapiture is most likely to run a good race.

— Of the Wood Memorial Horses, I prefer Wicked Strong. He has a little tactical speed and he finished really well in the Wood.

— To me, the key Derby prep will be the Blue Grass. The 1-2 finishers, Dance With Fate and Medal Count, look like they have the stuff to be key stretch-runners on Saturday.

— I think We Miss Artie has some decent dirt form — seriously.

PICKS

1. Dance With Fate.

2. Medal Count.

3. California Chrome.

4. We Miss Artie.

Denver -2.5 vs. Seattle (48)

There is a lot of appeal in laying less than a field goal with the Broncos in Super Bowl XLVIII. It is sound decision-making. Denver supporters are on solid ground.

Nevertheless, I’m siding with the underdog Seahawks. 

Here’s my reasoning:

  • The Seahawks’ defense can hold its own against the Broncos’ offense. In fact, Seattle’s defense might just have the edge. I see Denver’s receiving corps having problems working open initially against Seattle’s secondary, which will allow Seattle’s pressure to get to Broncos quarterback Peyton Manning.
  • The versatility of the Seahawks’ offense is a little underrated. Think of the ways Seattle can attack in the ground game. They can play straight-ahead power football with Marshawn Lynch. They have Russell Wilson keep the ball on read-option plays. Moreover, they can now get Percy Harvin involved on end-arounds, etc. It’s difficult for me to believe Denver will completely shut down the Seattle ground game, and that’s going to open up passing-game opportunities for Wilson.
  • The Broncos’ injuries will finally catch up with them. The Broncos will enter the Super Bowl without two blue-chip players (OLB Von Miller, OLT Ryan Clady) and four other capable starters (CB Chris Harris, DE Derek Wolfe, DT Kevin Vickerson, S Rahim Moore). The Broncos have overcome that talent drain largely on the strength of their offense. However, now they are facing an elite defense. Points will be tougher to come by, and their margin for error will be quite slim. 

To me, the Seahawks are the best team in football. And when that team is an underdog … well, I’ve had more difficult handicapping decisions. I may not be right about Super Bowl XLVIII, but I have a strong opinion, and that isn’t always the case.

Pick: Seattle (+2.5)

Predicted score: Seahawks 31, Broncos 20.

Last week: 1-1 / Season: 31-43-4

Two-hundred dollars of failed Super Bowl halftime show future-book bets, 1995-2005:

—   Coolio featuring L.V., $10 at 500-1, 1995.*

—   Seven Mary Three: $5 at 2,000-1, 1996.

—   Savage Garden, $10 at 1,000-1, 1997.

—   Silkk the Shocker, $5 at $10,000-1, 1998.**

—   Sixpence None the Richer, $20 at 1,000-1, 1999.

—   Santana (featuring Rob Thomas), $50 at 50-1, 2000.***

—   Lifehouse, $40 at 500-1, 2001.****

—   Michelle Branch, $20 at 750-1, 2002. *****

—   Chingy, $20 at 1,200-1, 2003.

—   Hoobastank, $10 at 1,500-1, 2004. ******

—   Up With People, $10 at $500-1, 2005. *******

* — (cracks knuckles) This is called getting your money in with the best hand, friends.

** — Fun fact: my first-ever drink was Surge and Southern Comfort. 

*** — I got Santana AND Rob Thomas for 50-1. No regrets.

**** — Was kind of reeling from the bad beat from the previous year.

***** — [null set]

****** — It was them or Petey Pablo.

******* — Worth a shot.

Picks are bolded:

New England +5 at DENVER — Let’s begin with this piece of advice: if you like the Patriots, don’t settle for plus-5 unless that’s best you can do. Frankly, I’d rather not take five, but that’s the prevailing number, and as I try to balance getting these picks up sooner than later with the current market prices … well, sometimes I have to publish a number I don’t love. There’s a +6 at a major Nevada book, so keep that in mind.

Anyways, I like the Patriots to keep this close, and they have a real shot at the outright upset. In my view, the Broncos’ defensive injuries leave them quite vulnerable in this matchup. I’m not convinced the Broncos can slow the Patriots’ passing game, which could leave them challenged to stop the run, too. My take? The absences of Von Miller and Chris Harris will loom large at times for Denver. 

Granted, New England is without tight end Rob Gronkowski for this matchup, which is a major negative. Nevertheless, the Patriots are as resourceful and as flexible as they come on offense in today’s NFL. They have adjusted, and they have thrived. I’ll take the points.

SEATTLE (-3)*** vs. San Francisco — Count me in for the Seahawks at this relatively short price.

The 49ers are an outstanding underdog, but this is a tough spot. The Seahawks couldn’t have gotten more out of their divisional-round win vs. the Saints — their defense and special teams were excellent, and their offense made just enough plays to win. If Seattle’s offense improves, the home side will be tough to beat in one of the best conference title games from a sheer talent standpoint that I can remember.

The Seahawks have lost just three times this season, and they held a fourth-quarter lead in all of those defeats, including the Week 14 loss at San Francisco. I hold Seattle’s best game is the best any team can muster this season. Top to bottom, this is the NFL’s most skilled team.

*** — Yes, there are plenty of 3.5s out there. However, multiple big Nevada sports books are dealing Seattle -3 with added juice.

Picks: New England, Seattle.

Last week: 1-2-1 / Season: 30-42-4

Here’s an off-the-cuff by-conference list of the offenses in the best shape, on paper, for the next three seasons. The genesis of the list was the Ravens’ offensive coordinator job opening up. Here’s the idea: if I could coordinate any offense beginning in 2014, which would I pick? 

Quite obviously, the list is subjective.

The teams bolded are those that have a clear starter at quarterback in 2014. The players listed are the ones who immediately occurred to me as major assets. I first thought of skill-position players, so if I missed an obvious tackle or guard, my mistake.

Lastly, it seems to me that the NFC is in better shape from an offensive perspective. Even some of the bottom-of-the-list clubs have some potential.

Here goes:

AFC

1.    COLTS — ANDREW LUCK, T.Y. HILTON.

2.    BRONCOS — PEYTON MANNING, DEMARYIUS THOMAS.

3.    PATRIOTS — TOM BRADY.

4.    BENGALS — A.J. GREEN, GIOVANI BERNARD, DEPTH OF SKILL TALENT.

5.    CHARGERS — PHILIP RIVERS, KEENAN ALLEN, RYAN MATHEWS.

6.    RAVENS — JOE FLACCO, TORREY SMITH.

7.    STEELERS — BEN ROETHLISBERGER, ANTONIO BROWN, LeVEON BELL.

8.    DOLPHINS — RYAN TANNEHILL.

9.    CHIEFS — ALEX SMITH, JAMAAL CHARLES.

10. TEXANS — ANDRE JOHNSON, ARIAN FOSTER; AGE CONCERNS AT SKILL-SPOTS, MAJOR QB QUESTIONS.

11. BROWNS — JOSH GORDON.

12. TITANS — KENDALL WRIGHT.

13. BILLS — C.J. SPILLER.

14. JAGUARS — MAJOR QB QUESTIONS, BUT JUST A GENERAL BELIEF FRANCHISE GOING IN RIGHT DIRECTION.

15. RAIDERS — MAJOR QB QUESTIONS.

16. JETS — MAJOR QB QUESTIONS.

NFC

1.    PACKERS — AARON RODGERS, JORDY NELSON, RANDALL COBB, EDDIE LACY. 

2.    EAGLES — LESEAN MCCOY, DESEAN JACKSON, NICK FOLES, DEPTH OF SKILL TALENT.

3.    BEARS — JAY CUTLER, BRANDON MARSHALL, ALSHON JEFFERY, MATT FORTE.

4.    FALCONS — MATT RYAN, JULIO JONES.

5.    SEAHAWKS — RUSSELL WILSON, PERCY HARVIN, MARSHAWN LYNCH.

6.    49ERS — COLIN KAEPERNICK, VERNON DAVIS, MICHAEL CRABTREE, FRANK GORE.

7.    COWBOYS — TONY ROMO, DEZ BRYANT, DEMARCO MURRAY, JASON WITTEN, TYRON SMITH. AGE A LOOMING CONCERN.

8.    PANTHERS — CAM NEWTON. SKILL-POSITION QUESTIONS, HOWEVER.

9.    SAINTS — DREW BREES, JIMMY GRAHAM. AGE AT SKILL POSITIONS, OL PLAY ISSUES TO WATCH.

10. LIONS — MATTHEW STAFFORD, CALVIN JOHNSON. NEED A LITTLE MORE PASS-CATCHING TALENT.

11. REDSKINS — ROBERT GRIFFIN III, TRENT WILLIAMS, PIERRE GARCON, ALFRED MORRIS, JORDAN REED. 

12. BUCCANEERS — MIKE GLENNON, VINCENT JACKSON, DOUG MARTIN.

13. VIKINGS — ADRIAN PETERSON, CORDARRELLE PATTERSON. MAJOR QB CONCERNS.

14. RAMS — TAVON AUSTIN, BUT MAJOR QB CONCERNS.

15. GIANTS — VICTOR CRUZ, BUT QB PLAY NOW A CONCERN. RB PLAY AN ISSUE, TOO.

16. CARDINALS — HAVE TO SOON REBUILD / RELOAD AT SKILL POSITIONS.

Picks are in bold:

New Orleans (+8) at Seattle: It comes down to this: I believe the Saints can get enough stops to keep this within the number. I’m not worried about their offense. Nor I am I worried about the weather. I do, however, concede that the Seahawks could make short work of these underdogs. But I’ll take the risk.

Indianapolis (+7) at New England: These Patriots are dogged, but they lack the brilliance of their recent predecessors. Only five of New England’s 12 victories were by more than seven points. A little of the value has been zapped out of the underdog, but I’ll take the points nonetheless.

San Francisco (-1) at Carolina: I’m not convinced the Panthers have the offensive punch needed to beat San Francisco a second time. I’m also convinced the Niners are one of the two or three most talented teams in the league, top to bottom.

San Diego at Denver (-9.5) — I just wonder if the Chargers are over the top. This is the second of back-to-back road games, and tailback Ryan Mathews is hurting. I don’t like laying this many points, but I think Denver is very likely to win.

Picks: New Orleans, Indianapolis, San Francisco, Denver.

Last week: 1-2-1 / Season: 29-40-3

Picks are bolded:

The Eagles (-2.5) have the skill and versatility to give any defense fits. The Saints’ stop unit is stronger than a season ago, but Philadelphia could simply prove too much for New Orleans. I’ll also take a shot on OVER 53.5 in Saints-Eagles. Though cold weather is forecast, the wind doesn’t look like it will affect the passing games.

— In their December 1 meeting with the Bengals, the Chargers (+7) committed three turnovers and were outgained by just 20 yards in a 17-10 loss. They can play Cincinnati tough in the rematch. The pressure is squarely on the Bengals, who have not played well in their last two playoff appearances.

— Finally, sign me up for the Packers (+3) in the wild-card weekend finale vs. San Francisco. Yes, the 49ers’ offense has given the Packers’ defense major problems in the last three meetings. Yes, the 49ers’ defense is stronger than the Packers’ defense. Nevertheless, I’m playing the Packers to move forward in Aaron Rodgers’ second start back in the lineup — and I’m playing against the 49ers delivering yet another outstanding performance against a blue-chip Green Bay squad. At some point, the 49ers will turn in a dull performance in one of these games. That’s my theory, at least. At the price, why not?

Point spread picks: Green Bay +3, Philadelphia -2.5, San Diego +7.

Total pick: Philadelphia-New Orleans OVER 53.5.

Last week: 3-1 / Season record: 28-38-2.

Selections are in BOLD:

PITTSBURGH -7 
vs. Cleveland — The Steelers are in good form. The Browns are not. The Steelers need the game to keep their postseason hopes alive. The Browns’ playoff hopes have long been gone.

N.Y. GIANTS -3.5 vs. Washington — In meaningless Week 17 games like this, the home team holds extra appeal. Washington has been playing out the string for weeks.

MINNESOTA -3 vs. Detroit — The Vikings have played hard for Leslie Frazier. The Lions are beaten-up. If Detroit delivers a great effort … well, it’s a few weeks late.

Tampa Bay at New Orleans OVER 47 — The Saints need the game, and I have a feeling the young Bucs will show well in their season finale.

Picks: Saints-Buccaneers OVER 47, Minnesota, N.Y. Giants, Pittsburgh.

Last week: 2-2 / Season to date: 25-37-2.