JC / Railbird

Speed Figures

Slow Enough to Win

Days before the 140th Kentucky Derby was run, Steve Coburn, the co-owner and breeder of California Chrome, made a prediction: “With a good break and a clean trip,” he said, “I think it’s a done deal.”

What was brash on Wednesday became fact on Saturday, as the Derby field rounded the stretch turn and the 5-2 post-time favorite put his head in front and then began to draw away. He got a clean break. He got a clean trip. (The same can’t be said of several other Derby starters.) He even got a reasonable pace to rate off when Uncle Sigh, wearing blinkers for the first time, took the early lead from Chitu and ran the first three-quarters in 1:11.80 (chart).

What he didn’t get was a triple-digit Beyer speed figure for winning the Derby. With a final time of 2:03.66, California Chrome was given a 97, “the lowest for any Derby or Preakness winner since Andrew Beyer has been making figures,” tweeted Randy Moss. His TimeformUS figure also came up slow — chief figuremaker Craig Milkowski gave him a preliminary 104. Both numbers are well off his previous 108 Beyer and 113 TFUS highs. [5/5/14 Update: TFUS has since revised his Derby figure to 110.]

Maybe that the Derby came up slow is part of a trend toward lower figures in classic races, but it was more likely a strong wind. Gene Kershner notes:

[There] was a fairly strong headwind going against the runners down the stretch, which when counting the first run to the clubhouse turn is approximately 40% of the race running …

Byron King also points out that the track (DRF+):

… appeared much drier than for early races and may not have been as well watered as it had been earlier in the day. There was a gap of 2 hours, 43 minutes from the preceding dirt race, the Churchill Downs Stakes.

The Derby fractions from DRF Formulator are interesting:

Kentucky Derby fractions

Runner-up Commanding Curve and seventh-place finisher Ride on Curlin are the only two running sub :26 final quarters, despite the moderate early pace. It’d be easy to be disappointed by California Chrome’s closing :26.21, except the fraction doesn’t match the visual. Watching the replay, he accelerates to take the lead at the top of the stretch, then jockey Victor Espinoza eases up (and puts away his whip) in what looks like a comfortable final sixteenth:

Or, as Tim Layden writes:

It was an utterly dominant performance not accurately measured by the final margin; California Chrome drew out to a five-length lead with less than an eighth of a mile to run before jockey Victory Espinoza geared him down, rising in the irons two strides before the wire and waving his crop in the air, much as he had done aboard War Emblem 12 years ago.

Going into the Preakness, there’s a case to be made that California Chrome comes out of the Derby a more formidable contender for the second leg of the Triple Crown in two weeks — after his big efforts winning the San Felipe and Santa Anita Derby, the Kentucky Derby wasn’t a peak performance, at least as expressed in figures. Maybe it didn’t need to be.

Much will depend on how the colt does over the next two weeks and who shows up at Pimlico. Trainer Art Sherman said on Sunday that California Chrome came out of the Derby in good shape, although he did leave a “handful” of grain in his feed tub and that, “He got a little tired, but not too bad.” Alicia Wincze reports his condition as “feisty” this morning.

The Derby winner will stay at Churchill Downs for a few days before heading to Baltimore. His schedule won’t be taxing. “We can light train him over here for a couple of days, kind of just jog him,” Sherman tells Jennie Rees.

Coburn is already looking ahead, past the Preakness, to the Belmont Stakes, his confidence confirmed. California Chrome was the first California-bred to win the Kentucky Derby since Decidedly in 1962. “When he wins the Triple Crown,” said Coburn, “he’ll be the first California-bred to do it.”

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About those bad trips … Candy Boy was hard checked on the first turn after fourth-place finisher Wicked Strong crossed his path. Rider Gary Stevens was none too happy after the race, as quoted by the Churchill Downs press office:

“I had a horrible trip. On the first turn Rajiv Maragh came over on Wicked Strong and shut me off. Then he shut [Corey] Nakatani off, causing me to steady again. We’re both lucky we didn’t fall.”

Nakatani was on Dance with Fate, who recovered enough to finish sixth. Candy Boy was 13th; the race is a throw-out for him, whenever he starts next.

Third-place finisher Danza also interfered with Medal Count, veering into his path in the stretch. Sid Fernando helpfully illustrates.

Derby Day Notes

Untapable gets a Beyer speed figure of 107 for her Kentucky Oaks victory, and a TimeformUS figure of 114, numbers that put her in the same company as Kentucky Derby starters California Chrome and Wicked Strong in their final preps. When the “absolutely fabulous” filly makes her next start, the $4 she paid to win as the favorite on Friday is going to look like big money.

Early wagering on the Kentucky Derby has California Chome as the 2-1 favorite, with 27% of the $3.9 million win pool as of 10:00 AM. My picks in the race are California Chrome – Medal Count – Samraat. See who the Hello Race Fans team likes in all of today’s stakes races at Churchill. Good luck!

It’s not only Derby day, it’s opening day at Suffolk Downs, MAYBE FOR THE LAST TIME EVER, as every notice about the start of the 2014 meet points out. First post is 2:15 PM. Top rider Tammi Piermarini has mounts in eight races.

The CC-BB Connection

Dick Jerardi on this year’s likely Kentucky Derby favorite:

Go back six years. Other than the experience factor (it’s hard to believe that California Chrome has run 10 times …), I see Big Brown all over again, a really good horse against a far less talented and inconsistent group.

The same thought has crossed my mind. For a refresher, here’s how the 2008 Kentucky Derby field stacked up, Beyer speed figure-wise, in their final two preps and then in the Derby (listed below in order of finish):

Big Brown’s double 106-106 stood out then, and stands out now, much as California Chrome’s 107-108 Beyers do this year:

For comparison, I included the TimeformUS figures for the last two races of the top eight Kentucky Derby points leaders. On that scale, California Chrome is not the topper to date, but his figures are both consistent and easily put him within range of the “typical” TimeformUS winning Derby figure of 115. If you were only handicapping the Derby with ratings, California Chrome looks like a worthy favorite whichever numbers you use. But Brian Nadeau has a few reasons for why you might want to consider some other factors.

The Consensus and the Contrarian

A week before the Preakness Stakes, the Baltimore Sun considers the question of why modern-day contenders in Triple Crown races may be slower than past generations. Thoro-Graph founder Jerry Brown disagrees that they are:

Brown’s studies have found that track surfaces are significantly different than they were in the 1970s, with as much as an inch more cushioning and more sand as opposed to hardened clay.

“It’s like they’re running in a sandbox,” he said of contemporary racehorses.

Accounting for this difference, Brown concludes that many of the most impressive runs in Triple Crown and other races have come in recent years.

In Brown’s view, if Orb could be sent back to the 1970s, “the colt would likely be 8-10 lengths faster than Triple Crown competitors from that era.”

One theory, glancingly mentioned in the Sun piece, is that elite 3-year-olds might be slower because they’re underworked, but the work patterns of recent Kentucky Derby winners don’t suggest that’s a major factor, at least, not when looking for a correlation with Beyer speed figures. Orb (104) worked 12 times at an average distance of four furlongs between the start of the year and the Kentucky Derby; 2012 Derby winner I’ll Have Another (101) worked 11 times at an average distance of 6.25 furlongs. While Orb and IHA are outliers in distance, they’re not in number of works, which, going back to 1998, ranged from seven (Animal Kingdom, 2011; Big Brown, 2008; Smarty Jones, 2004) to 14 (Street Sense, 2007; Giacomo, 2005; Funny Cide, 2003; Real Quiet, 1998). The average distance for all was five furlongs. The highest Beyer in the period covered went to Monarchos (116), who had four prep races and nine works at an average distance of 4.75 furlongs. The lowest went to Giacomo (100), who had three prep races and 14 works at an average distance of 5.5 furlongs.

Classic Orb

Kentucky Derby winner Orb is already on his way back to New York back in New York, where he may breeze once at Belmont Park before shipping to Pimlico early Preakness week. The colt was given a Beyer speed figure of 104 for his 2 1/2 length win over the sloppy Churchill Downs track — a nice jump forward off his matching winning figures in the Florida Derby and Fountain of Youth. “He hasn’t been overcooked,” trainer Shug McGaughey told Jay Privman, saying he expected Orb to run as well in two weeks as he did on Saturday.

For the third year in a row, the Thomas Herding team tipped the winner, calling out Orb as their “top rated horse” in this year’s Derby, for a slew of reasons that included grit, versatility, and what you might call will:

Orb always runs his own race. He doesn’t react to the other horses in his environment. They react to him.

That’s what it looked like when he geared up in the stretch to pass the five still in front. According to Trakus, “Orb’s final quarter mile winning the Kentucky Derby was :25.88,” the only sub :26 final quarter in the field. DRF has him at :25.97 for the quarter, which is still faster than next best Revolutionary, who closed in :26.02 DRF time (:26.09 Trakus time) to finish third.

Orb was the post-time favorite at 5-1, and is the first Derby favorite to win since Big Brown in 2008. (He’s also the first since Barbaro in 2006 to have more than two preps.) After a few years in which longshots seemed to rule, it’s refreshing to have the horse pretty much everyone agreed was the best going into the Derby emerge as the best horse out of it. Orb didn’t break any rules winning (not that there are many left), but he didn’t have to — he’s a Kentucky Derby winner in a classic mold (as are his connections).

The Missing Digit

That fewer Kentucky Derby prospects are earning 100+ Beyer speed figures in preps hasn’t gone unnoticed (see: Trending Down, 2011; Mike Watchmaker 2012), but it’s still a little odd to realize that not only did the last four Kentucky Derby winners not post a single triple-digit figure in their two-prep campaigns, but hadn’t done so in their entire pre-Derby career. Since 2009, only one starter with a 100+ Beyer as a 3-year-old (out of 13) has even finished in the money (Bodemeister, 2012).

With two significant preps remaining, the four highest winning Beyer figures of the Derby points races so far belong to Goldencents (Santa Anita Derby, 105), Itsmyluckyday (Holy Bull Stakes, 104), Verrazano (Tampa Bay Derby, 101, down from his previous high of 105), and Super Ninety Nine (Southwest Stakes, 101). The winning Derby Beyer has gone down by a point or two every year since Mine That Bird’s 105 in 2009, with I’ll Have Another getting 101 last year. Will the winner this year make like Giacomo and get 100?

No Equal

As good as Frankel’s offspring may be, they’ll likely never be as good as him:

Curiously, Frankel appears doomed not to produce a son or daughter who is superior to him. The Racing Post’s bloodstock expert, Tony Morris, writes: “No horse rated 138 has ever sired a horse rated 138 or above. Frankel may well get plenty of good runners, and I hope he does, but I can guarantee he will never sire his equal; he is the ceiling, and regression to the mean dictates that all his stock will be inferior to him.”

This is probably also true of Beyer speed figures. Has a horse who has peaked at 120 or above ever sired an equal? Ghostzapper topped out at 128 (in the 2004 Iselin Handicap at Monmouth Park); Contested and Hunters Bay, two of his best progeny, certainly haven’t come close to such a number.

Re: Ghostzapper, his 2004 Breeders’ Cup Classic win is remembered as part of the Hello Race Fans’ Three Great Moments BC series.

Oh, Hey …

Kentucky Confidential returns for Kentucky Derby week on Sunday.

Speaking of the Derby, this year’s historical criteria spreadsheet is running a little late, but can be found here next week. [5/2/12 UPDATED! Now with post positions, equipment changes, jockey changes …]

The Spaceman is a little more on the ball: Gene Kershner is out with his annual contender spreadsheet, which includes info like historical post position stats. (That’s the kind of stuff that can really help you geek out.) Bonus: He tracked down the saddlecloth colors for this year’s Derby AE list.

A couple of weeks ago, Mike Watchmaker wrote about the decline in triple-digit Beyer speed figures in Derby prep races. Bodemeister did get a 108 for the Arkansas Derby (see all the prep race results), but this year’s Derby prospects haven’t reversed the trend I posted about last year.

This Again?

OMG:

“They’ve turned the Kentucky Derby into a guessing game,” [Thoro-Graph proprietor Jerry Brown] fumed. “The introduction of synthetic tracks has created mass confusion among handicappers. In the Derby, you’re left to guess whether a horse can handle dirt after running on synthetics.

“This is an absurd situation to create for people who bet the game seriously. It’s tough enough to beat it with good information and rational thinking, but now you have situations where it turns a race into pure guesswork.”

Actually, the synthetic-to-dirt surface switch seems to be one of the more predictable elements in handicapping the Kentucky Derby in recent years.

1:30 PM Addendum: Dean smartly notes on Pull the Pocket that when it comes to assessing surface changes, handicapping principles still apply, but “the questions you have to analyze just might be a little different.”

R High Figure

As measured by the speed figure makers, the Kentucky Derby field may be “solid, competitive … and slow,” but there’s a dominant figure in the Oaks.

Speaking of figures …

Frankel’s performance can only be described as awesome,” said the official BHA handicapper for milers, apparently as awed as everyone else watching Frankel cheerfully gut the field running behind him from the start in the 2000 Guineas (replay). “He destroyed the others, not himself,” said trainer Henry Cecil. At the end what impressed almost as much as the ease with which the undefeated colt won was how hard his rivals had to run to even keep him in view. Timeform gave Frankel a provisional rating of 142, the third best ever; the Racing Post rated him 133, the highest ever on that scale.

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