JC / Railbird

Preakness Stakes

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.

Pim’s Fix

Change the Triple Crown, boost the Preakness undercard, says Tom Chuckas:

“… this idea is not just for the Triple Crown races. We have an obligation to the public to put our best racing on the table when the world is watching and we are not doing that. We could promote a Woodford-Dixie-Manhattan series for older turf stars and Triple Crown filly series with the Kentucky Oaks, Black-Eyed Susan and Acorn. All those things are possible but is going to demand a collaborative effort between the parties to make this happen.”

Mike Watchmaker dispatches the idea that the problem is spacing:

Pimlico’s supporting stakes just aren’t as good, or as attractive to any rational horseman. Until Pimlico throws a ton of money into its supporting Preakness weekend stakes, which in time might attract better fields and result in higher rankings from the North American Graded Stakes Committee, it can’t blame a short turnaround for why their stakes aren’t attracting fields of comparable quality to their counterparts at Churchill.

Get creative, suggests Watchmaker. Nah, writes Pull the Pocket: “It doesn’t really matter.” So Pimlico feels like the odd jewel out during Triple Crown season — it still drew record attendance and increased handle on Saturday.

Belmont Bound

Two down, one to go, and making history won’t be easy. NYRA released a list of 11 potential Belmont Stakes starters shortly after California Chrome won the Preakness Stakes, including Kentucky Derby runner-up Commanding Curve and third-place finisher Danza. They’ll be fresh, as will Wicked Strong (fourth in the Derby) and Samraat (fifth). Ride on Curlin and Social Inclusion, second and third in the Preakness, are also possible for the Belmont, as are Commissioner, Intense Holiday, Kid Cruz, and Peter Pan winner Tonalist.

California Chrome was given a Beyer speed figure of 105 and a new career-top TimeformUS figure of 116 for his Preakness performance. He won his sixth straight race with another perfect trip and yet another display of his awesome ability to accelerate turning into the stretch. “He’s a freak of nature,” trainer Bob Baffert told HRTV after his starter, Bayern, finished ninth in the Preakness. “Nobody’s been able to run with him late.” Call it the California kick.

Here’s the Preakness replay (and chart):

“It was a crazy race,” said jockey Victor Espinoza said afterwards, about the tactical decisions he had to make. “I got more tired mentally than physically.”

The Preakness winner and runner-up were reported to be in good shape on Sunday morning. Trainer Art Sherman hasn’t settled on a plan for California Chrome leading into the Belmont, but said the colt may breeze once before.

Sherman’s Smile

Tim Layden:

One morning last week, Sherman, an impish 77 years old, leaned against a white-railed fence outside a horse barn at Pimlico Race Course. “That Secretariat, what a great horse he was,” he said. “I remember watching him run. All these years I’m thinking, I wonder if I’ll ever have a horse like that.” In the early morning light, Sherman shoved his hands a little deeper into the pockets of his green windbreaker, and looked over the top of his eyeglasses. “Well now,” he said, “maybe I do.” And then he smiled his little crooked smile, full of the impossible.

Passé Crown

What is the Triple Crown?

That’s the question that came to mind as I read the Blood-Horse report that Maryland Jockey Club president Tom Chuckas plans to start discussions about altering the spacing between the three races after the 2014 season concludes:

“I think the schedule of two weeks between the Derby and three weeks between the Preakness and Belmont is passé; it’s done.”

Chuckas plans to propose that the Kentucky Derby remain on the first Saturday in May, with the Preakness Stakes moving to the first weekend in June, and the Belmont Stakes to the first weekend in July. It’s not a new idea — every year, the Triple Crown schedule comes in for criticism as too quick, too demanding, too old-fashioned. Here’s Pat Forde making that argument:

The bleakness of this Preakness field emphasizes a fundamental flaw in thoroughbred racing’s Triple Crown. It is run on an outdated calendar. The turnaround from the first Saturday in May to the third Saturday in May is not something most thoroughbred owners and trainers are interested in trying.

If the Triple Crown is primarily about finding and celebrating a horse who can win all three races — if it’s mostly about the breed, and for us, the game’s most devoted fans and participants — then the series probably should be changed. A schedule that goes four weeks between starts fits how elite horses race now. Tradition has to serve a purpose, or it’s just a fetish.

But I wonder if we’d lose the season, the closest thing on the American racing calendar to a festival, and if we would miss it, the big circus moving from track to track, the one time of the year that the excitement of racing — the possibility of seeing something special — captures the imagination of the broader public. Whatever else the Triple Crown is, it’s a curiosity. Changing the schedule could make it an irrelevance. We might get a Triple Crown winner out of the deal, but we might be the only people partying.

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