JC / Railbird

Preakness Stakes

The Deal

Eric Crawford on how Calumet ended up buying Mr. Z for a Preakness run:

Working as the go-between, Lukas mediated a conversation between Calumet and Zayat. It began on 7 p.m. Tuesday night. By 8 o’clock Wednesday morning it resumed. Lukas not only was working with a couple of wealthy parties, but against the clock. By 10:10 on Wednesday, he had a deal, and then, with the help of some fast work by Justin Zayat, completed the deal in the 20-minute window he needed in order to get Mr. Z entered …

D. Wayne Lukas likes what he’s seeing from the Malibu Moon colt this week: “He is coming into the race beautifully, the same way Oxbow did.” (Oxbow derailed Orb’s Triple Crown chase with an upset in the 2013 Preakness.) If Mr. Z wins, and that’s a longshot, it’s easy to imagine the stunned reaction — he’s won but once in 13 starts. “We think he can be a pace factor in this race,” TimeformUS handicapper Mike Beer writes, echoing the consensus view. “We would be surprised were he to be more than that.” What wouldn’t surprise me is if he finishes third or fourth; he’s been competitive enough to make the trifecta in races previously won by American Pharoah and Dortmund.

The trainer, though, didn’t pull off this caper only for Saturday — he has a plan for Mr. Z that involves running a mile and maybe on the turf.

California Chrome’s next turn on the turf is coming up in the Prince of Wales’s Stakes at Royal Ascot on June 17; from afar, trainer Art Sherman dreams of having him back. A hint, for fans, that he may return to run at Keeneland: “We’re sure looking at the Breeders’ Cup, hopefully the Classic.” I think that may be the first mention this year of a BC tilt — co-owner Perry Martin earlier sketched out a schedule mostly abroad. But then, who knows? The Chrome team seems disjointed, a state Dick Powell would have liked to see delved into during NBC’s Kentucky Derby coverage:

I was frustrated by the piece done on CALIFORNIA CHROME (Lucky Pulpit)’s ownership problems. They implied that Perry Martin and Steve Coburn are not getting along due to a disagreement on where the horse is going to run but there was not enough depth to the coverage. They interviewed the loquacious Coburn but never asked him any specific questions about when and why did the relationship go wrong. It made Martin, who is anything but loquacious, seem like the villain but he does own 70 percent of California Chrome and, thus, calls the shots.

There was a brief mention of him racing at Royal Ascot next month but they never really got into trainer Art Sherman’s feeling of not having him back at his home base. Plus, no video of him training in Newmarket. They tried to re-visit last year’s feel good story but didn’t develop why the relationship went bad. Considering how long the show is, no real excuse not to answer why it went wrong.

Chrome’s first race back in the US will be the Arlington Million, says Martin.

Everything is hunky-dory in the American Pharoah camp. “AP best he ever been,” owner Ahmed Zayat tweeted at Ed DeRosa when he floated some “anti-American” buzz. “Just ask all … at Pimlico he is A BEAST.” Dave Grening confirms: “Baffert is indeed correct when he says Pharoah floats over the ground. Man, he is an impressive individual.”

But the whip issue has not gone away: “Whether you vilify Victor Espinoza’s Kentucky Derby ride or defend it, this much is clear,” writes Pat Forde, “all eyes in Baltimore will be on the jockey’s right arm, and how many times he brings his riding crop down on the flank of American Pharoah on Saturday …

Whether he wins the Preakness or not, says Bob Ford, he lost the Triple Crown in the Kentucky Derby:

From a tactical standpoint, Espinoza did what he thought necessary to get American Pharoah home and that is his job. It has also been said by jockeys and trainers that the lighter, softer whips used now often act as more of a metronome than a bludgeon, tapping out the stride and keeping the horse aware of the job at hand.

Unfortunately, Pharoah is not able to corroborate this theory and define whether that final stretch run was accompanied by an excited urging or something more terrifying. He arrived at the finish line spent, even though the Derby was the second-slowest running over a fast track and the third-slowest last two furlongs since 2000. American Pharoah really didn’t have it on Derby Day, but still won …

Jay Hovdey comes down on the side of what he calls the “rational” insider view: With today’s padded crops, whipping is no big deal. That Espinoza was so free with his stick (subscriber only):

… was an issue only because it was the Kentucky Derby, which 16 million people watched on NBC, although I’m guessing not many of them noticed or even pretended to care until the whip count was brought up in Derby postmortems.

The Churchill Downs stewards decided that the rider did nothing wrong, and Espinoza was unapologetic, which made sense because no apology was required. Jockeys are handed the whip and told to go win the race, only now it is in an atmosphere of ever-changing rules governing the use of the stick.

His column does highlight just how subjective it is, assessing whip use, referencing, as others have done, how many times rider Calvin Borel struck Rachel Alexandra in the 2009 Woodward. Quantitatively, the 21 hits Borel gave the filly is closer to the approximately 20 Espinoza gave California Chrome in the 2014 Kentucky Derby. But those wins look nothing alike. Qualitatively, the 2009 Woodward and this year’s Derby do — both riders determined to win, both horses giving their all. Emotion influences perception. It’s enough to make what’s a 50% increase of one over the other seem equal.

Pletcherology

Trainer Todd Pletcher has decided to pass on the Preakness Stakes, declining to enter either of his two Kentucky Derby finishers, or potential contenders who skipped the Derby, and could, presumably, be Preakness ready, such as Stanford. Materiality, sixth at Churchill Downs, will point instead to the Belmont Stakes. “If you come back in two weeks and you turn out to be wrong,” said Pletcher, “not only could you not run well in the Preakness, it could compromise your chances in the Belmont as well.”

That puts the likely Preakness field at seven*, a short number that inspired Brian Zipse to speculate that the trainer is sending a message, a message that it’s time to alter the Triple Crown schedule:

It should be crystal clear to us all that America’s top trainer is making a strong statement that the Triple Crown races are too close to each other on the calendar. Because of this, the Middle Jewel, the Preakness, is the odd race out for the powerful Todd Pletcher stable …

I’m not sure we’ve ever seen such an obvious example of why the timing between races of the Triple Crown should be expanded. Todd Pletcher, America’s most influential trainer, is not running any of his horses in the Preakness — Not Materiality — Not Carpe Diem — Not Competitive Edge — simply because it is too close to the Derby.

Right.

Tom Jicha makes a related point:

It isn’t just the Preakness that gets short changed … the Kentucky Oaks got Alciabides winner Lovely Maria, Louisiana Oaks champion I’m a Chatterbox, Gulfstream Oaks victor Birdatthewire and Santa Anita Oaks winner Stellar Wind. The Black Eyed Susan is getting none of them.

(My opinion re: a schedule change hasn’t much changed since last year.)

The quick return doesn’t scare trainer D. Wayne Lukas, who had Mr. Z, 13th in the Derby, vanned to Pimlico. “He’ll run in the Preakness or he won’t run at all,” Lukas told Alicia Wincze Hughes. There’s just one problem — owner Ahmed Zayat, also the owner of Kentucky Derby winner American Pharoah, doesn’t want him entered. “Can’t stop that man,” he tweeted. “Wow. Mr. Z not running.” Zayat was further “completely unambiguous” when asked if the colt would start on Saturday, reports Marty McGee, saying Mr. Z “does not belong in the race on his merits.” But someone’s signals are crossed: “Oh, he’s running,” said Lukas. The Preakness draw is today, beginning at 5:00 PM ET.

2:45 PM Update: “Lukas was not to be denied.” Calumet has purchased Mr. Z for a Preakness run. “They gave us an offer we could not refuse,” said Zayat.

*6:00 PM Update: The Preakness drew eight. Here’s the field with morning line: 1. American Pharoah (4-5); 2. Dortmund (7-2); 3. Mr Z (20-1); 4. Danzig Moon (15-1); 5. Tale Of Verve (30-1); 6. Bodhisattva (20-1); 7. Divining Rod (12-1); 8. Firing Line (4-1). (Get the Hello Race Fans cheat sheet.)

5/14/15 Addendum: Pletcher, asked about altering the Triple Crown schedule:

“I’m torn on what’s the right thing to do,” Pletcher said last month at Churchill Downs. “I think you lose the historical significance if you [change the schedule]. I think you can argue as the breed has evolved and trainers have evolved, [there should be] more time for the horses between races.

“There’s a far better chance we’ll have a Triple Crown winner if we do that, but will it have an asterisk next to it? I don’t know.”

Whose Party?

Reporting from Baltimore’s Park Heights neighborhood, home to Pimlico:

A gigantic banner hanging above the racetrack’s main entrance declares the Preakness to be “the people’s race” and “the people’s party.” But those people, for the most part, aren’t from the largely black community around the track, where just gaining admission to the clubhouse and the grandstand will cost you $25 (much more if you want a seat), and where an infield ticket will set you back $70.

“For 50 years, I’ve sat on this porch and have seen people come and go on Preakness day, and most of them are white and rich and look all fancy in their dresses, neckties and shorty-shorts,” said Ruth Spencer, 87, who lives near the corner of Hayward and Winner Avenues, across the street from the track. “But I do love watching the people come by. I feel proud that they’ve come here to my backyard.”

Move the Preakness to Laurel, says Andrew Beyer.

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.

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.

Not the One

Sam Walker is keen to keep any Triple Crown talk for American Pharoah real, based on his Kentucky Derby performance:

… while they didn’t start quickly, they were actually slowing down at the line and the winner came home in a steady 26.57s, which doesn’t bode fantastically well for his chances in the final Classic, the Belmont Stakes over 1m4f, which has been crushing Triple Crown dreams since 1978.

This may seem a glass-half-empty appraisal of a very smart horse winning a Kentucky Derby, but the glass has been overflowing from half-full for long enough with this horse. As the Triple Crown comes closer to fruition it’s worth injecting some realism into his prospects.

Steve Davidowitz is thinking along the same lines:

Coming back in two weeks to run in the Preakness Stakes at Pimlico racetrack in Baltimore, Maryland is one reason I wonder if he can pull it off. Frankly, the relatively short time between races could expose American Pharoah’s key vulnerability.

If it does not — should American Pharoah come through that important 1 3/16 mile race with still another victory — he will be taxed to the limit trying to handle the 1 1/2 mile Belmont Stakes against fresh horses …

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