One year’s decline isn’t a trend, but the fatality rate reduction at Suffolk Downs reported by racing director Jennifer Durenberger is still impressive:
Let’s look first at the catastrophic injury rate for the meet: 1.24 per thousand starts. This is down from 1.73 in 2013 — a nearly 30 percent reduction …
Thanks to the Jockey Club’s Equine Injury Database (EID), which captures data from an amazing 93 percent of all flat racing days, we know that the average catastrophic injury rate in 2013 was 1.9 per thousand starts. That includes all horses — young and old, graded stakes competitors and seasoned claimers, sprinters and routers, turf specialists and mudders. When we separate that by surface, we see a nationwide average of 1.63 catastrophic injuries per thousand turf starters and 2.08 per thousand dirt starters. At Suffolk Downs in 2014, the turf rate was 1.44 and the dirt rate was 1.20 — less than 60 percent of the national average.
Among the losses incurred by Suffolk Downs’ demise, count the reform work done by state regulators in partnership with track management since 2012, work that included adopting uniform medication rules and a horse-first welfare policy, making racing safer for vulnerable (older, cheaper) horses.
TimeformUS takes a look at the distance race statistics of trainers with likely Belmont Stakes starters. Spoilers: The numbers at 12+ furlongs are small. Pletcher is solid. Mott knows what he’s doing. Clement has great turf form.
The last 12 horses to win the Derby and the Preakness have failed to complete the Triple Crown. With a historical success rate of 33 percent, the current 12-race slump is unlikely: The odds of it happening by chance are about 1 in 130 — nearly the same as the 2011 Atlanta Braves failing to make Major League Baseball’s playoffs with 18 games remaining and an 8.5-game lead for the wild card.
Here’s another way of putting it:
The odds of all 11 horses that raced in the Belmont losing at their race odds (by chance) are only 1 in 20,000 — about the odds of a random pitcher throwing a perfect game on a given night.
California Chrome is expected to face a full field in the Belmont Stakes. NYRA reported the historically daunting number of 11 on Saturday:
No horse has won the Triple Crown facing more than seven rivals, which Seattle Slew and Citation did in 1977 and 1948, respectively. Secretariat in 1973 and Affirmed, the most recent Triple Crown winner in 1978, both defeated four others.
With Intense Holiday now out after suffering a condylar fracture while working on Sunday (trainer Todd Pletcher said the injury wasn’t life-threatening and may not be career-ending), the list of possible challengers stands at 10, including Wicked Strong, Tonalist, Samraat, and Commissioner. All four also worked on Sunday: Videos of their works, plus one of California Chrome galloping, are available on the NYRA YouTube channel.
5/28/14 Update: Medal Count, eighth in the Kentucky Derby, has been declared possible for the Belmont. “[His] Derby was better than it looks,” said trainer Dale Romans, making a case for his colt as Triple Crown spoiler. “History shows it will be difficult for California Chrome.”
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.
The one Kentucky Derby rule still going strong is that the Derby winner raced as a 2-year-old. It’s been so every year since 1882. I took a quick look at that record last year, when Verrazano was the unraced-as-a-2YO Derby contender, noting that since 2003, only nine of 192 Derby starters hadn’t raced as a juvenile (that’s now 10 of 211). It’s a small group. Nicole Sauer dives deeper into the numbers, looking at all graded stakes starters from 1973-2013:
During this period, 73% of graded stakes starters raced at age 2, while 27% were unraced as 2-year-olds. If “having a 2-year-old foundation” is important for graded stakes performance at 3, then we should expect a higher proportion of 3-year-old graded stakes winners to have raced at 2. This is the case, but only by a 2.2% margin: 75% of 3-year-old graded stakes winners raced at 2 compared to 25% who didn’t.
So, there’s a slight edge to having juvenile experience. A very slight edge.
Hoppertunity is the sole likely Kentucky Derby starter this year who didn’t race last year. If you like him, though, you have to like that he’s made up for that lack of early experience with five starts so far this year.