Two weeks ago, the Breeders’ Cup Classic looked as though it would be a showdown between two California 3-year-olds. Now it’s setting up as an East Coast vs. West Coast sophomore clash, after Belmont Stakes winner Tonalist exited a troubled Jockey Club Gold Cup with his second Grade 1 win and an improved, blinkers-off running style, and undefeated Shared Belief was tested, but not bested, by trainer Bob Baffert’s duo of Fed Biz and Sky Kingdom in the Awesome Again. Both winners reportedly came out their races in fine shape.
That’s the good news. The bad is that jockey Rajiv Maragh is out indefinitely with a broken arm after falling from Wicked Strong during the first half of the Jockey Club Gold Cup. Junior Alvarado, aboard Moreno when he veered into Wicked Strong’s path, causing the two to clip heels, is due before the stewards at Belmont Park this Wednesday to discuss the incident. [10/1/14 Update: Alvarado has been suspended for 15 days (DRF+ link).]
At Santa Anita, the stewards have already handed Victor Espinoza a seven-day suspension for the Awesome Again, in which his mount, Sky Kingdom, the longest shot in the field, steered Mike Smith and Shared Belief toward the center of the track on the first turn and then kept them running wide until he tired on the far turn and fell back to finish last. Trakus shows Shared Belief running 66 feet more than runner-up Fed Biz, who had a rail trip.
“It’s ridiculous,” Espinoza told Art Wilson on Saturday, responding to the allegation that Sky Kingdom was acting as a foil for his stablemate’s competition. “I would never try to hurt anybody or bump somebody, especially a horse like that. He’s an amazing horse. My horse, he always runs on the outside. He doesn’t like having dirt kicked in his face.”
Whether intentional or not, writes Mike Watchmaker, “what Espinoza did in the Awesome Again looks bad. Really bad. It appeared unprofessional.” You can judge for yourself: Watch Santa Anita’s HD replay.
While Smith was hotly deriding his rival’s post-race explanation, trainer Jerry Hollendorfer was playing it cool. “We’re all big boys,” he said. “It’s no big deal for me. Mike [Smith] will have to settle up with Victor [Espinoza]. It’s not the worst thing in the world to have a tough race and be double fit for the Breeders’ Cup. That race will be tougher, so we’ll need to be tougher too.”
Beyer speed figures and TimeformUS ratings for Super Saturday’s Belmont Park and Santa Anita graded stakes winners:
Re: Shared Belief’s 114 for the Awesome Again, Craig Milkowski tweeted, “If our figures included ground loss, particularly ground loss in relation to pace, Shared Belief would easily be 125+ …”
The Travers is now a possibility for Bayern after the 3-year-old colt trained by Bob Baffert wired the Haskell, winning by 7 1/4 lengths (replay). He was given a Beyer speed figure of 109 for the effort, two points higher than his freaky Woody Stephens win on Belmont Stakes day, and the second-highest Beyer awarded to any 3-year-old of either sex so far this year. Baffert had been thinking of the seven-furlong King’s Bishop as Bayern’s next start, “but I don’t think I’ll back him up after this,” he said post-race, per the Monmouth Park press notes. Instead of the 10-furlong Travers, writes Mike Watchmaker, “consider the nine-furlong Woodward at Saratoga against older horses one week after …” Hm, why not? The Haskell to Woodward move worked for Rachel Alexandra in 2009, and if any horse emerged from yesterday’s running looking like a potential Horse of Year candidate, it was the winner. It certainly wasn’t post-time favorite and fifth-place finisher Untapable — not to take anything away from the filly, who lost nothing as the leader of her division on Sunday and who was really up against it, running four wide on a track that may have been favoring a front-runner, but that performance should put an end to any further comparisons to the truly unbeatable 2009 Horse of the Year.
Related: “Have to bet Bayern off that huge 121 @TimeformUS Speed Figure [for the Woody Stephens],” tweeted Craig Milkowski before the Haskell. “It is a legit number.” The figuremaker gave the winner a 119 after.
Tonalist was given a Beyer speed figure of 100 for winning the Belmont Stakes. TimeformUS rated his performance a 102.
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.
Without milkshakes and steroids the horses that have been selected for and trained as “classic types” by bloodstock agents, owners and trainers are now exposed for the sprinters that they genetically are.
I speculated about something similar in 2013, after Oxbow won the Preakness Stakes in a slow time and Bill Oppenheim brought up the trend of declining Beyer speed figures in the spring classics. Commenting on the Belmont Stakes figure collapse that began with Da’Tara in 2008, I wrote:
[T]he data suggest that there may be additional factors at work, such as changing training practices and the elimination of routine steroid use.
Rogers reports data, in the form of a genetic study done by his pedigree consulting practice on 1500+ horses, that found “the North American breeding population has the second highest percentage of horses that have been genetically selected for sprinting,” and concludes that there’s no reversing that trend, which began decades ago, without “significant structural changes.” If that happened, in his view, the game likely wouldn’t see a renewed emphasis on breeding for distance expressed in speed figures for at least 15-20 years. That’s probably more time than interests the market.
Percentage of US races longer than 1M on dirt and synth:
1991 – 19.91%
1996 – 16.78%
2001 – 15.57%
2006 – 14.31%
2011 – 13.46%
Percentage of US races on dirt and synth at 6F or less:
1991 – 54.24%
1996 – 51.30%
2001 – 50.31%
2006 – 50.58%
2011 – 49.71%
Percentage of US dirt and synth races at less than 6F:
1991 – 13.27%
1996 – 15.15%
2001 – 17.92%
2006 – 21.60%
2011 – 23.25%
So, shortening the Kentucky Derby to nine furlongs from 10, and the Belmont Stakes to 10 furlongs from 12, as Oppenheim suggests in his most recent column (PDF), would more closely align the classic races with the realities of contemporary American racing and breeding. Whether that’s a worthy goal or not, I’ll leave to breeders and pedigree experts to debate.
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