JC / Railbird



The top three finishers in the Preakness Stakes were making their 10th or 11th career starts — it’s been a while since anything like that’s happened in a Triple Crown race, as Superterrific confirmed by compiling 2007-2013 results. What will be interesting to see, going forward, is how this year’s classic contenders perform over the next few months (will they stick around for fall campaigns?), and if this is the beginning of a trend toward more starts for classic prospects.

Not So Slow

Left at the Gate posted a Preakness Stakes pace analysis that you should read in full, but the upshot is that on a slow track Oxbow:

… was a running fool and bottomed them all out, the way I see it.

Which is why Oxbow’s Preakness Beyer speed figure is 106, something Bill Oppenheim writes about in today’s Thoroughbred Daily News:

When I first saw the time of Saturday’s Preakness S. — 1:57:2/5, the slowest in 51 years … I thought the Beyer speed figure was sure to come back in the nineties. But when I looked at the times for the other dirt races — 1:10 and change for two six-furlong stakes, and 1:46 and change for and older filly-and-mare Grade III — it did look like the track was slow, and Andy Beyer confirmed there was a stiff headwind against the horses in the stretch.

Oppenheim also publishes a table (PDF), with data provided by Andrew Beyer, of the Beyer speed figures for all the Triple Crown races from 1987 to 2013 (minus this year’s Belmont Stakes, of course), documenting the decline in figures over those years, and in particular, the sharp decline in figures over the past five years, especially in the Belmont Stakes. “That has to be the result of lack of stamina in pedigrees,” Beyer tells Oppenheim.

Trends in breeding can’t be ignored, but the data suggest that there may be additional factors at work, such as changing training practices and the elimination of routine steroid use. If you look at the Belmont Stakes figures, until 2005, the Belmont speed figures are generally in line with or higher than the figures for the Kentucky Derby and Preakness. Starting in 2006, the Belmont Stakes figure is consistently lower than both the Kentucky Derby and the Preakness figures; from 2006-2012, no Belmont winner earns a higher Beyer than the winner of the Derby or the Preakness.

The most striking thing about the table, though, is that Belmont Stakes figures essentially collapse in 2008. That was the year Da’Tara earned a 99 after Big Brown faltered; no winner has been given better than 100 since. It may be chance, but the period beginning with 2006 coincides with a fresh-is-best training approach to the Triple Crown and a string of Kentucky Derby winners with two preps, and the period beginning with 2008 coincides with a Kentucky Derby winner weaned off Winstrol and an industry-wide steroids ban.

Recent Belmont Beyer speed figures

3:45 PM Addendum: Dick Jerardi explains how the 106 given Oxbow was determined: “The key horse in the Preakness was Itsmyluckyday …” (He was given a Beyer of 103 for finishing second.)

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?

Where They Prepped

With Uncle Mo back in training (the early Derby favorite breezed three furlongs in 39:95 at Palm Meadows this morning) and the Holy Bull Stakes (last Derby winner, Barbaro ’06) kicking off Gulfstream’s Derby prep series this afternoon, it seemed a good time to look back at the stakes in which the top three Kentucky Derby finishers of the last 10 years prepped (wins are bolded in the spreadsheet below). Considering how much prep schedules and training regimens have changed in just the past decade, it’s practically quaint that there was a time a Derby prospect could start in both the Wood Memorial and the Florida Derby, as did 2003 runner-up Empire Maker and 2001 winner Monarchos. And the Tampa Bay Derby, run in March, has become such a key prep, it’s surprising that its rise only dates back to Bluegrass Cat in 2006.

It was Street Sense, though, who in 2007 elevated the Tampa Bay Derby into a race that trainer Todd Pletcher is now seriously considering for Uncle Mo’s first start of the year. Street Sense won at Tampa, then lost the Blue Grass, and is one of six Kentucky Derby winners of the past 10 years who didn’t win his final prep. Of the four who did, three were undefeated going into the Derby, including Smarty Jones, who in 2004 was the first undefeated winner of the Kentucky Derby since Seattle Slew in 1977. Barbaro accomplished the same feat in 2006, then Big Brown did in 2008. Since 2001, there have been five unbeaten horses among 188 Derby starters — the three Derby winners already mentioned, plus Curlin in 2007 (he finished third), and Showing Up in 2006 (sixth). Make of this what you will: As Derby prospects make fewer starts, and their spots are more carefully chosen, there’s a greater chance an undefeated horse (or horses) will enter the Derby. And yet, a record of three wins and four in-the-money finishes from five such starters isn’t to be dismissed.

Related: Historical criteria and Derby winners’ prep schedules, 1998-2010.

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