JC / Railbird

Preakness Stakes

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 …

Trips and Limits

Ed DeRosa on the Kentucky Derby and Preakness winner:

California Chrome was much the best in both races because of what I prefer to call “clean trips” rather than “perfect trips.” Clean because he stayed out of trouble but not perfect because — especially in the Preakness — he was fighting every step of the race and turned back all challengers.

That’s a useful distinction, especially in looking ahead to the kind of trip California Chrome might get in the Belmont Stakes. It won’t be perfect, because no one is going to cede a step to the dual classic winner. But clean might not be enough. If Victor Espinoza thought he was a target in the Preakness and had to ride defensively — “I had to start early because the outside horse was pushing me,” said the jockey after the race, “I thought I had the perfect position, but when the outside horse attacked me, I had to open it up at that point” — the Belmont is going to ratchet that pressure up.

Sam Walker remains skeptical of California Chrome’s Triple Crown chances:

The main worry with California Chrome is that he had his stamina exposed in the Derby two weeks ago, where he finished relatively slowly off a steady pace, producing a weak final time (over 1m2f). The expectation is that he will have even less in reserve at the end of the Belmont (over 1m4f).

So stamina is a concern, but so too is class. Sure, the colt has an edge over his contemporaries but so did every other failed Belmont favourite.

When he was trouncing his opposition in the Golden State he looked set to take the world by storm. Back then the sky was the limit, but he hasn’t continued that progress in the Classics. Indeed, his RPRs have plateaued.

At Santa Anita he ran to 124, in the Derby it was 125 and in the Preakness 125 again. We appear to be close to finding the limit of his ability — and in the Derby I think we found the limit of his stamina.

Danza is out of the Belmont. He isn’t 100%; he’ll get some time off.

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