JC / Railbird

Kentucky Derby

2015 Kentucky Derby

Preps: Schedule, results, and replays (includes Beyer speed figures)
Reference: 2015 prep and historical criteria spreadsheet
Churchill: Official Kentucky Derby website

The Marvel

From Tim Layden’s Triple Crown epilogue:

… Pharoah’s performance in his recent resumption of training would seem to indicate that he remains at the top of his game. “The only time he’s ever come back to the barn blowing and tired was after the Derby,” says Baffert. That race, according to Baffert and jockey Victor Espinoza, remains a marvel. “He was empty with a half mile left in the race,” says Baffert. “I mean empty.” Espinoza says, “I started riding him at the half-mile pole and I’m like ‘Holy s—! What’s happening here?” Says Baffert, “You got a horse that’s empty, and wins the Kentucky Derby, that’s a great horse. People told me, ‘You’ve got to run against older horses.’ Trust me, I’m not worried about older horses. Not with this guy.”

It’s begun — as the legend of American Pharoah’s Triple Crown win grows, it’ll be the Kentucky Derby that increasingly stands out as his greatest challenge, the race that defines his accomplishment.

The 99 Percent

Johnny Weir hadn’t even been born when the modern Kentucky Derby telecast was conceived. The challenges of 1982 look a lot like 2015:

Many were dubious at the time about the value of an extended telecast, but ABC stood fast. “There are very few sports that the American public follows so little, but becomes so interested in for one race,” host Jim McKay told the Dallas Morning News. “There’s a tremendous amount of familiarization to do on the day of the race. There’s the horse, the owner, the jockey, and the trainer, and it’s important to do as much as possible on who they are and where they came from.”

Sportscaster Howard Cosell summarized ABC’s production strategy a bit more bluntly to the Washington Post: “You have to be willing to alienate — or at least talk at a sophisticated level they’re not at all pleased with — the serious horseplayer,” he explained. “You can’t be concerned with them. You have to worry about the 99 percent who are watching just because it’s the Derby.”

It’s interesting how much the televised approach to the Derby has spilled over into year-round racing marketing (for example: America’s Best Racing).

Pop, Pop, Pop

Steve Haskin on the 32 strikes debate:

Did Victor Espinoza overdo his use of the whip in the Kentucky Derby? It would certainly appear that he did. In his mind, was it abuse or mistreatment? Of course not …

So, while Espinoza is guilty of overuse of the whip on Stellar Wind, and arguably American Pharoah, and deserves to be punished, incidents like that are going to continue unless we adopt policies like the one they have in England. Not because of any cruel intent, but because of the natural act of using the whip to urge on a horse. You can’t just tell a jockey to stop something he’s done all his life. You have to make penalties serve as an inducement where he at least thinks about what he’s doing and learns to control his actions. The British jockeys have learned it; so can ours.

It sounds as though the stewards’ review of the Kentucky Derby is over:

“We have [reviewed the ride again] and we have the same feeling we had after the race was over: It’s within the boundaries of our regulations. He did hit the horse quite a few times but it was all within the rules of the state.”

Calvin Borel explains why jockeys may use padded crops more:

“You have to hit them six times to one times to the old crop; that’s what it amounts to, because they really don’t feel it,” Borel said. “With that kind of crop [padded], you have to — not hit them hard — but keep popping them.

“Riders hit them more often probably because of the pop, pop, pop; it keeps making noise. And it probably looks worse. With the regular whip, you get their attention when you hit them one time.”

Espinoza’s Take

Tim Wilkin talks to jockey Victor Espinoza:

Q: You hit American Pharoah with the whip 32 times during the race. There are those who have said that was a bit excessive. Your take?

A: No. I was doing it to encourage him, nothing else. I wanted to encourage him, keep him focused and keep him straight.

Also: Owner Ahmed Zayat is high on Pharoah in advance of the second leg of the Triple Crown. “I think he breathes different air than everyone else … he won the Derby, and I think he’ll be better in the Preakness.”

Recent Preakness Winners

Preakness Stakes winners and their post-time Preakness odds, 1984-2014. Kentucky Derby winners who also won the Preakness are in bold:

KYD = Kentucky Derby finish / PRK = Preakness finish / * = Favorite

I don’t anticipate this year’s Derby winner going to post as anything other than the Preakness favorite, although by how much he’ll be favored is a question.

12:30 PM Addendum: Not to keep on about jockey Victor Espinoza whipping American Pharoah in the Kentucky Derby, but it’ll be a factor for a sizable number of handicappers who will consider Espinoza’s hard use a measure of Pharaoh’s Derby performance, influencing the colt’s Preakness odds.

UK racing analyst James Willoughby adds an international perspective to the recent discussion, writing in the Thoroughbred Daily News:

The number of strokes was arguably not the most egregious aspect; rather, it was the overwhelming impression that Espinoza was working on the horse — not with him …

It is no longer going to wash to say this is the way it has always been done or we know what is best. Just like every other pursuit in the world, racing must have a robust, well-considered defense for its practices which can remain true to racing tradition without being hidebound by it.

Indeed, whatever the local values held about the sport, surely nobody would stand up for hitting a horse without giving it time to respond.

As a starting point, that’s a good one.

Willoughby refers to a 2011 study of riding crop use (PDF) in the UK conducted by the British Horseracing Authority, which concluded:

1. The use of the whip in Racing – providing strict controls are effectively enforced – remains appropriate and necessary for the safety of both jockeys and horses …

2. The current whip guidelines and penalties for those jockeys who breach the Rules on whip use are not an effective enough control and deterrent in their current form.

Strict new rules went into effect following the 2011 review, and were revised in 2012 to allow for more judgement on the part of riders and stewards. The updated rules allow jockeys to use their crops eight times in British flat races; any strikes past that number trigger a stewards’ review. Eight. That’s about a quarter of the hits Espinoza gave American Pharoah.

Whipping the Issue

Pull the Pocket on Victor Espinoza’s heavy hand in the Kentucky Derby:

I don’t know why we make things so difficult in horse racing: 32 is excessive by any measure. That’s against a rule, thus you penalize him. Next year, if you don’t want to see the same thing on national TV, you pass, or alter the rule beforehand and let the jocks know in the room that excessive use will result in a 14 day suspension. That would not allow the jock to ride in the Preakness. The jocks — who are professionals — will fall in line and your problem will be solved.

Except the people charged with keeping the rules don’t seem to see an issue with what happened. Although there are plans to review Espinoza’s whip use on American Pharoah, “clearly this is a discretionary issue,” chief steward Barbara Borden told Marty McGee (DRF paywalled, sorry). If there’s a point to press, it’s in the rule that a horse be given time to respond after being struck. As I said elsewhere, it didn’t look as though Pharoah got that.

Trainer Bob Baffert also downplayed how Espinoza used his riding crop on American Pharaoh, saying during the NTRA teleconference on Tuesday:

“I never noticed it during the race, and then … I read something yesterday. I went back and looked at it. The horse — first of all, the whips they use now, they’re so light … and he was just keeping him busy, because … the horse was not responding when he turned for home … he just was keeping him busy, and he was flogging him and hitting him, but he hits him on the saddle towel. He doesn’t really hit that hard, so he was just keeping him busy.”

It’s “flogging,” but it’s not a problem. And for the most part, watching most races, I agree, especially about allowing riders discretion — jockeys say the crop is required for safety and control, and because they’re the people putting their mobility and lives on the line in each race, theirs is the perspective that most matters. The crop also has a place in encouraging a horse. But neither control nor encouragement get in the way of articulating and enforcing limits.

Related to whipping not being a problem (in a slightly different way), here’s a quick post Dana Byerly put together last fall when Santa Anita was considering a change to its whip use rule (the new rule, which restricts riders to three consecutive strikes before they must pause, passed statewide in November).

6:45 PM Addendum: Santa Anita stewards have fined Espinoza $300 for a whip violation. He broke the skin of Stellar Wind in the Santa Anita Oaks on April 4, as reported by the state veterinarian in the test barn post-race. Trainer John Sadler tells the Blood-Horse, though, “This is the first I’ve heard of it and I don’t remember noticing any marks on the horse then.”

Peak Pharoah

Dick Jerardi on American Pharoah (subscription only):

Some think the Derby might knock him out. I see it another way, that the Derby may have gotten American Pharoah the fitness he never was able to get this winter. If you think about it, he had less preparation than any horse in the race and won anyway. The Derby had to be worth five workouts. I think his career-best performance is coming May 16 at Pimlico.

That’s my bet. American Pharoah had to exert himself to win last Saturday. The effort should sharpen him for the Preakness.

Victor Espinoza whips American Pharoah down the stretch of the 2015 Kentucky Derby

Victor Espinoza’s whip use on Pharoah during his Derby run will be reviewed (beware, that’s a Courier-Journal paywall-popup link):

Chief state steward Barbara Borden told The Courier-Journal on Wednesday that Kentucky racing officials plan to look at the stretch run and Espinoza’s tactics again, though, “We watched it many, many times prior to making it official, and that wasn’t anything that got our attention.”

Borden said there’s no set limit in Kentucky for how many times a jockey can whip a horse during a race. As for American Pharoah’s Derby win, she said the ride “didn’t stand out to us to be super excessive.”

Kentucky’s rules on riding crop use allow plenty of latitude, requiring “a jockey who uses a riding crop during a race shall do so only in a manner consistent with exerting his or her best efforts to win,” and specifying that the rider:

Show the horse the riding crop and give the horse time to respond before striking the horse;

(b) Having used the riding crop, give the horse a chance to respond before using it again; and

(c) Use the riding crop in rhythm with the horse’s stride.

See section 15 of the KHRC regulations for the full text.

The issue of how many times Espinoza struck American Pharoah came up when a Bloomberg recap by David Papadopoulos appeared the morning after the Kentucky Derby with the sensational headline, “American Pharoah Whipped 32 Times in Victory” (both New York Times reporter Joe Drape and Daily Racing Form correspondent Jay Privman also noted the number of strikes in their post-race analysis). Papadopoulos’ point was more about what the whipping said of Pharoah’s effort and his chances for the rest of Triple Crown season, although you can read some judgement of Espinoza’s tactics in the comparison with Joel Rosario on fourth-place finisher Frosted:

Beyond being aesthetically unpleasing to watch, so many blows can take a lot out of a horse, each one acting as a forceful prodding to try harder. And at some point, they stop being effective. Stronger-finishing jockeys, like Joel Rosario, who rode fourth-place finisher Frosted, rely much less on the stick to drive their horses to the finish line. Rosario hit Frosted only four times as he surged toward the leaders late in the Derby.

For comparison, Espinoza struck California Chrome approximately 20 times on the way to his win in the 2014 Kentucky Derby. All after the eighth pole, and mostly timed to Chrome’s stride. He was still a bit free-handed with the crop, but less desperate, as Chrome was in the lead from earlier in the stretch.

In a conversation about whip use on Twitter, Sid Fernando commented “[U]ntil Bloomberg guy counted, AP whip didn’t even register to me as [Rachel Alexandra’s] did [in the 2009 Woodward].” That may have been the last time there was a high-profile flap about how much a jockey used his crop in a stakes race. Rachel Alexandra was struck 21 times by rider Calvin Borel on her way to winning. As Steven Haskin wrote then for the Blood-Horse:

Did Rachel need to be hit 21 times? Only Borel can answer that. Unlike the British stewards, American stewards pay no attention to such things, so we’ll just have to assume Borel felt the situation was desperate enough to resort to such measures.

I suppose we’ll have to assume the same about this year’s Derby.

← Before