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.
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.
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).
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?
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.
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.
“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.”