Searching for a score in the 2020 Stephen Foster

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The Grade 2, $500,000 Stephen Foster Stakes brings together a field of eight quality horses in the Breeders’ Cup Classic division, each hoping to earn an automatic spot into the gate for the Nov. 7 running of the race at Keeneland, just 72 miles down the road from Churchill Downs. Leading the field in terms of accomplishments is Tom’s d’Etat, winner of the Grade 1 Clark Stakes presented by Norton Healthcare, the fall version of the Stephen Foster. Since the Clark, Tom’s d’Etat won the Oaklawn Mile Stakes in his only start of 2020 and although third in last year’s Foster he is the one to beat on paper. Owendale is among many who have top stakes credentials, having won the Blame Stakes at Churchill Downs last month after finishing second to Tom’s d’Etat in the Clark last fall.

NBC Sports will broadcast theStephen Foster as part of the “Breeders’ Cup Challenge Series: Win and You’re In” schedule. Watch the Fleur de Lis Stakes and the Stephen Foster Stakes from Churchill Downs on Saturday, June 27 from 5 to 6 p.m. ET on NBC, NBCSports.com and the NBC Sports app.

Another strong contender is By My Standards, who has a perfect 3-for-3 record this year including the Grade 2 Oaklawn Handicap last month in his most recent race. Silver Dust is no slouch either, having led late in the Blame Stakes last month and coming up a neck short in the Grade 2 Lukas Classic Stakes last summer at this nine-furlong distance while crossing the wire first in the Grade 3 Mineshaft Stakes and Grade 3 Louisiana Stakes in between. Pirate’s Punch finished third in the Mineshaft, as well as third in the Grade 3 Super Derby last summer and may have an edge in the pace department as the only horse who likes to lead early in the race. Multiplier won the Grade 3 Illinois Derby in 2017 at the distance of the Stephen Foster and proved he belongs with these when coming up a neck short in the Grade 1 Santa Anita Handicap in March. Fearless makes his stakes debut off an eye-catching rally from last of 11 to win an allowance race last month at Churchill Downs. Alkhaatam rounds out the field, having won his last two dirt starts, noting however he finished 11th of 12 in last year’s Foster.

Although there’s no doubt Tom’s d’Etat leads the field in terms of having earned field-high 116 and 118 Equibase Speed Figures in similar races, Pirate’s Punch may have a significant edge in terms of early speed that could help him to post the upset. Winner of four races from 14 starts, Pirate’s Punch was most impressive in two of his last four efforts when winning by five and by 11 ½ lengths, respectively. In both cases, Pirate’s Punch established the lead and got very brave to be well in front when the field turned for home, giving no horse a chance to make up any ground. It may also be that Pirate’s Punch can take back and sit off the pace as well. This is evidenced by his last effort where he rallied from fifth to get within a neck of the leader with an eighth of a mile to go, before being outfinished but only beaten a half-length and a neck for the win. Getting the No. 2 post position in the Foster, as well as the services of Hall of Fame jockey Mike Smith, I believe the tactic will be to go for the lead from the start, especially since the only horse inside of Pirate’s Punch in the gate (Fearless) usually drops back and closes from far back. There’s absolutely no doubt in my mind Pirate’s Punch has the breeding to win this Grade 2 race and to run well at a mile and an eighth. Using STATS Race Lens to look at the history of other foals of the dam, I note both were exceptional, with combined earnings of $2.1 million. One of those was Girvin, winner of the 2017 Grade 1 Haskell Invitational Stakes. As such, I’ll take Pirate’s Punch to get the lead from the opening of the gate and never look back in this year’s Stephen Foster Stakes.

Tom’s d’Etat doesn’t need much talking up, if any, in terms of being a strong contender to win this race. Winner of 10 races from 16 dirt starts, Tom’s d’Etat proved himself last summer at the distance when winning the Alydar Stakes at Saratoga with a career-best 118 figure.  Two races later, Tom’s d’Etat duplicated the feat with a victory in the Grade 3 Fayette Stakes at the same distance, earning a 116 figure. Winning the Clark Stakes in November at Churchill Downs with a 113 figure led to a 4 ½ month layoff. Returning as if he had never been away, Tom’s d’Etat earned a 113 figure winning the Oaklawn Mile Stakes in April. Having proven capable of winning off a layoff, there’s no problem with the 2 ½ months off since his last race and as he’s won five of eight races at the distance including three of his last four, there is nothing to knock about this talented horse. Although he rallied from sixth and eighth, respectively, in his last two races, Tom’s d’Etat raced closer up in second in the early stages of the Fayette Stakes so it is entirely possible Pirate’s Punch will not get the easy early lead I envision, and in that case it’s very likely Tom’s d’Etat will earn his 11th career win in this race.

By My Standards has really blossomed as a 4-year-old, winning in his 2020 debut by six lengths then taking two straight graded stakes. Winner of the Louisiana Derby at the distance of the Foster last March as a 3-year-old, By My Standards had already proven to be one of the top of his class, but after a poor 12th-place effort in the Kentucky Derby the colt went on the sidelines. Given time to mature, he did just that with a win around two turns off a nine-month layoff with a 102 figure, then two races later he earned a career-best 106 figure in the Oaklawn Handicap at this mile and one-eighth distance. Showing he’s fit as a fiddle with a half-mile workout one week ago that was the 11th-best of 113 on the day and with it likely he has improving to do, By My Standards could really put his mark on the division with a win in this race and by doing so, stamp his name as one of the horses to strongly consider this fall in the Breeders’ Cup Classic.

I could make the case for any of the other five entrants in this race as their best efforts could be good enough to win. These horses, and their best Equibase Speed Figures, are Alkhaatam (105), Fearless (99), Multiplier (109), Owendale (108), and Silver Dust (114).

Win Contenders:

Pirate’s Punch

Tom’s d’Etat

By My Standards

Watch the Fleur de Lis Stakes and the Stephen Foster Stakes from Churchill Downs on Saturday, June 27 from 5 to 6 p.m. ET on NBC, NBCSports.com and the NBC Sports app.

PointsBet USA unveils partnership with Detroit Tigers

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In the absence of MLB games until – hopefully – later this month, MLB betting made some news Thursday with the announcement that PointsBet USA is now the official gaming partner of the Detroit Tigers. It’s the first such arrangement between a sports betting entity and an MLB team, made possible by PointsBet USA’s recent agreement with MLB designating the sportsbook as an authorized gaming operator by the league.

“The PointsBet team is excited to announce our groundbreaking deal with the Detroit Tigers and Major League Baseball, becoming the first legal sports betting operator in U.S. history to partner with an MLB franchise,” PointsBet USA CEO Johnny Aitken said in a news release. “We offer the most betting options in the world on MLB games via our unique PointsBetting product, and we are excited to inject a unique and robust betting proposition into the great state of Michigan.”

Michigan legalized sports betting in December, for both brick-and-mortar and online operators, and books began taking bets in March. PointsBet USA is not only the first book to partner with an MLB franchise, but the first to partner with any Michigan-based professional sports team.

As part of the multi-year deal, PointsBet USA will have TV broadcast-visible branding at Comerica Park, a sponsored presence on the Tigers’ digital platforms, and will be integrated into The District Detroit app and the MLB Ballpark app.

“We are thrilled to welcome PointsBet as a gaming partner of the Detroit Tigers,” said Chris Granger, group president of sports and entertainment for Ilitch Holdings. “Our incredible fans will love the unique experiences and innovative offerings that PointsBet’s personalized platform provides. We look forward to the fan-friendly enhancements this will bring to the game-day experience in and around Comerica Park for years to come.”

NBA betting: Eight seeding games to bet when NBA returns

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NBA betting is back on the board with the NBA season restarting in Orlando after the COVID-19 shutdown. From July 30-August 14, the 22 remaining teams with NBA Championship aspirations will face off against each other to determine playoff seeding, so get ready for some exciting matchups.

We take a look at eight must-bet NBA seeding games to watch as the league returns to action.

Clippers vs Lakers (-1.5, 218.5), July 30, 9 p.m. ET

When the Los Angeles Lakers, led by LeBron James and Anthony Davis, take on Kawhi Leonard, Paul George and the Los Angeles Clippers, the NBA doesn’t get much better than this. Opening day and Christmas Day also featured this marquee matchup and the opening night of the restart in Orlando will mark the fourth time this season that these LA rivals have faced off.

The Lakers are third in the NBA in scoring defense, allowing 106.9 points per game, while the Clippers hold opponents to just 43.6 percent shooting from the field, also third-best in the league. With both teams coming in off lengthy breaks, there may be some rust on the offensive end of the floor making the Under 218.5 an intriguing play.

Betting trend to watch: The Clips won the first two meetings while the Lakers won the last one in March. The Under hit in each of those contests with an average score of 108.7-106.7 in favor of the Clippers.

Celtics vs Bucks (-5, 217.5), July 31, 6:30 p.m. ET

Barring an absolute collapse, the Milwaukee Bucks will wrap up the No. 1 seed in the East, but they will still likely want to play MVP front-runner Giannis Antetokounmpo in this one just to shake off the cobwebs after the break.

This could be a preview of the Eastern Conference Finals and it will be interesting to see how Boston Celtics point guard Kemba Walker looks after being hampered by knee issues following the All-Star break. Boston split the series with Milwaukee during the season and Walker torched the Bucks both times, scoring 32 points against them in November and putting up 40 on them in January.

Betting trend to watch: Milwaukee opened as a five-point favorite, with the total set at 217.5, but don’t count out the Celtics, who have gone an impressive 14-4 ATS as an underdog this season.

Rockets vs Mavericks (+1.5, 225.5), July 31, 9 p.m. ET

The battle between James Harden and Luka Doncic will be a treat for basketball fans, but the Houston Rockets and Dallas Mavericks have plenty of firepower in addition to their All-NBA guards.

With the full game total for this contest opening at a reasonable 225.5, keep an eye on the first half total when it drops.

Betting trend to watch: Fast starts have been a trend for both squads, with Houston leading the league with 59.9 first-half points per game and Dallas second with 59.3 ppg. For good measure, the Rockets also rank 25th in the NBA in first-half scoring defense, surrendering 58.1 ppg.

Heat vs Nuggets (-1, 212.5), August 1, 1 p.m ET

Both the Miami Heat and the Denver Nuggets could see their seeding change dramatically based on how they perform in Orlando. Miami has an absolute gauntlet to run through with its first four games against Denver, Toronto, Boston and Milwaukee.

The Nuggets have long had a massive edge at home, due to the increased elevation at the Pepsi Center, and losing that advantage in Orlando could hurt. Then again, Miami could be in the same boat considering that they posted an average scoring margin of plus-9.3 ppg at home — and that plummeted to minus-2.7 in away contests.

Betting trend to watch: The Heat have been one of the highest-scoring teams in the league during the first quarter, but have really struggled to put the ball in the hoop at the end of games, averaging just 26 ppg in the fourth quarter. With Denver holding opponents to just 26.2 fourth-quarter points per game on the road, this is a trend you’ll want to consider when live betting in the final 12 minutes.

Bucks vs Rockets, August 2, 8:30 p.m. ET

It’s always a blast watching two MVP favorites face off against each other, and after Harden came up short against Antetokounmpo last year there seems to be a lack of respect between the two superstars. The Greek Freak took a potshot at Harden when he selected his team during All-Star weekend, with the Rockets guard responding with, “I wish I could be 7 feet and run and just dunk. Like, that takes no skill at all.”

Betting trend to watch: Unfortunately for the small-ball Rockets, defending in the paint is their biggest weakness, especially after trading away Clint Capela left them with the 6’5″ PJ Tucker often manning the center position. Houston allows 51.5 ppg in the paint, sixth-worst in the league, and Giannis is the most dominant inside scorer since Shaq, putting up 29.6 ppg this season.

Grizzlies vs Pelicans, August 3, 6:30 p.m. ET

Not only will this matchup feature the two best rookies in the league in Ja Morant and Zion Williamson, but it will also be a prime spot for the New Orleans Pelicans to gain ground on the Memphis Grizzlies for the No. 8 seed in the Western Conference.

New Orleans was impressive on offense even without Zion and have become even more unstoppable since the first-overall draft pick joined the team on January 22. Once Zion joined the fold the Pelicans averaged 120.1 ppg and played at the fastest pace in the league.

Betting trend to watch: Thanks in large part to Morant, Memphis also looks good on the offensive end of the floor, ranking seventh in the league in both possessions per game and shooting percentage. With both teams electrifying on offense – and terrible on defense – this should be a very fun game with the Over worth looking at.

Trail Blazers vs Nuggets, August 6, 8 p.m ET

There might not a more dangerous team currently outside a playoff spot than the Portland Trail Blazers, who arguably boast the second-best backcourt out of all 22 teams in Orlando and will also get center Jusuf Nurkic back from a broken leg. The Nuggets are third in the West but sit only 1.5 games behind the Clippers and 1.5 games ahead of the Jazz, so every game matters.

This is a rematch of last year’s Western Conference semifinals, where the Blazers upset the Nuggets in seven games. In three games head-to-head this year the Nuggets went 3-0 SU and ATS.

Betting trend to watch: Blazers All-Star Damian Lillard has struggled against Denver, averaging 21.6 ppg on 37.7 percent shooting over his last seven regular-season games against the Nuggets. Although he played better during the playoff series last season, it was CJ McCollum who carried the Blazers offense, especially in Game 7 when Lillard went 3-17 from the field.

Raptors vs 76ers, August 12, 6:30 p.m. ET

There might not be much on the line if the Toronto Raptors have already secured a seed by this time, but if their nerve-wracking seven-game playoff series against the Philadelphia 76ers last year is any indication, this should still be a great game.

Betting trend to watch: It will be interesting to see how these teams play on neutral ground. Toronto has been one of the best teams in the league away from home, going 23-9 SU and 16-15 ATS and posting an average scoring margin of plus-4.2 ppg. On the other hand, the 76ers have been terrible on the road, going 10-24 SU, 9-23 ATS and posting a scoring margin of minus-5.3.