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Monday, June 20, 2011

Where the Road Runs

With the dust settled from this year’s Triple Crown, what perspective is gained from the seemingly unconventional tactics employed by the various connections and what lessons can horseplayers assimilate for future use? Much ink has been spilled attempting to do just that, but a few things that appear to be true:

The Road to a Classics Victory No Longer Runs Through New York or California 
Shocking as it may seem, classic winners these days rarely come out of the two circuits with the most bluster and bravado. It has been over a decade since either a Wood Memorial or Santa Anita Derby winner has captured a leg of the Triple Crown—2000 Wood victor Fusaichi Pegasus won the Kentucky Derby, while Santa Anita Derby winner Point Given took out both the Preakness and Belmont in 2001. [Correction: my mind is obviously fading. As commenter Frank rightly notes, Wood winner Empire Maker did capture the Belmont in 2003, so it's not quite as bad for New York]. Of course, Rags to Riches won the Santa Anita Oaks en route to her Belmont victory, while Preakness winner Lookin at Lucky managed a third-place finish in the Santa Anita Derby. Otherwise, the West Coast route has come up barren, although whether or not that is due strictly to mandated synthetic surfaces is debatable now that Santa Anita has returned to dirt.

New York has fared no better. Once the prep race of Triple Crown victors—won by Gallant Fox, Count Fleet, Assault, and Seattle Slew (both Omaha and Secretariat finished third)—the Wood Memorial has lost much of its prestige in recent years. Wood runner-up Jazil did subsequently win the 2006 Belmont as did Wood runner-up [correction: winner] Empire Maker in 2003, but for the past three years, its winners (I Want Revenge, Eskendereya and Toby’s Corner) have failed to even make the Derby field due to injury (a fate similar to that of Wood third-place finisher Uncle Mo), which begs the question “Is the Wood Memorial cursed?”

The Road to a Classics Victory Runs Through…New Mexico, Louisiana and Arkansas
In terms of reputation and history, New York and California denizens may lord over their perceived superiority in racing quality. However, recent 3-year-old prep races don’t bear that out as fact. In fact, by the looks of it, the best 3-year-olds now prep off the beaten path, so to speak—in Louisiana, Arkansas and New Mexico.

Certainly, Florida continues to offer solid prep races with both the G2 Tampa Bay Derby and G1 Florida Derby. The former has perhaps fallen a bit in reputation since Street Sense’s 2007 victory, with only third-place finisher Super Saver going on to Kentucky Derby success. However, the Florida Derby still appears to be strong, with recent winners Empire Maker, Barbaro and Big Brown. This year’s runner-up Shackleford captured Preakness glory, while last year’s winner Ice Box finished an impressive second in Kentucky. That said, it’s really the “lesser” circuits that have risen to the top in recent years.

At last year’s Breeders’ Cup it was my great pleasure to share a box both Friday and Saturday with Dustin Dix, Sunland Park’s director of racing. He was rightly proud of Sunland Park—and his track’s “native son”, Kentucky Derby winner Mine That Bird. The Canadian juvenile champion prepped for his huge Louisville upset by finishing second in the Borderland Derby and fourth in the Sunland Derby. While some dismiss his Churchill performance as a “fluke,” how quickly they forget his fitness level was such that he ran second to Rachel Alexandra in the Preakness—and finished third behind the fresh Summer Bird and Dunkirk in the Belmont. 

Last year, Endorsement went from an Oaklawn maiden win, to a near-track record win in the G3 Sunland Derby, to giving trainer Shannon Ritter a legitimate Kentucky Derby horse—all within the space of a couple months. Heartbreakingly, he suffered a non-displaced condylar fracture in his final workout before the Derby, and has yet to return to race. This year, two classic winners ran at Sunland—Kentucky Oaks victress Plum Pretty who dominated the Sunland Oaks, and Belmont winner Ruler On Ice, who finished a late-closing third in the Sunland Derby to Twice the Appeal who ran a creditable 10th in the Kentucky Derby and runner-up Astrology who subsequently ran third in the Preakness. 

What makes little out-of-the-way Sunland as successful as of late? While gaming-enriched purses may be the obvious answer, it’s not the correct one. None of the aforementioned horses benefited from their winnings to get to where they ended up—in the winner’s circle at Churchill and Belmont. Instead, perhaps we need to look at the stamina-building benefits of higher altitude racing, with Sunland being at nearly 3,800 feet above sea level?

Then again, at an altitude nearly below sea level, there’s the Louisiana Derby at Fair Grounds. If ever a race deserved to be elevated to G1 status, it’s this one, with last year’s third-place finisher Drosselmeyer ultimately winning the Belmont, and this year’s race producing not only Kentucky Derby runner-up Nehro and third-place finisher Mucho Macho Man, but also hotly-favored Pants on Fire who returned from his bleeding-induced poor effort in the Derby to win the G3 Pegasus this past weekend—perhaps on his way to greater glory this summer?

Then there is Oaklawn’s G1 Arkansas Derby. Has there been a consistently better Triple Crown prep race in recent years? Smarty Jones, Afleet Alex and Curlin all won this race, while Super Saver ran second and Summer Bird was third here before their classic wins. This year’s race featured the ill-fated Derby challenger Archarcharch as well as Kentucky Derby runner-up Nehro

Finally, how can we forget Preakness winner Rachel Alexandra, whose entire 3-year-old campaign prior to her dominating Kentucky Oaks win was contested at Oaklawn and Fair Grounds? Off-the-beaten path has become the road to victory it seems.


Frank said...

Interesting stuff, Val, but one minor quibble: in 2003 Empire Maker won the Wood (instead of being runner-up) but it was the Wood runner-up who made more noise in the Triple Crown: Funny Cide, who won two legs of it.

Valerie Grash said...

Ah, Frank, I need a better fact checker! Does it count if you "will" a result to happen, like Funny Cide winning the Wood? :-) That said, it's still nearly been a decade...

Thanks for correcting me so politely :-)

Amateurcapper said...


I haven't been by for a while and love the look of your elegant as your writing. I will be back more often.

I offer that the winter racing in NY and Cali, both having been impacted by rock hard tracks thanks to the sealing done when it rains, causes a myriad of injuries. It's entirely possible that will also occur in Louisiana and Arkansas. I think synthetics are a compelling option and that may leave normally warm California out in the horse racing cold.

With STREET SENSE and ANIMAL KINGDOM both coming off synthetic preps to win the Derby and finish 2nd in the Preakness, it is possible that the Kentucky synthetics give young horses the requisite conditioning in the final prep while protecting their bodies.

Even this year's Blue Grass winner BRILLIANT SPEED closed well against a slow pace in the Derby and loomed dangerously in the Belmont before flattening out for 3rd.

PIONEEROF THE NILE finished 2nd in the '09 Derby after winning the SA Derby on synth. HARD SPUN was 2nd in '07 Derby after winning the Lane's End at TP, completing a synth. exacta. PADDY O'PRADO finished 2nd in the '10 Blue Grass prior to being 3rd in the Derby.

If not for PADDY sideswiping him, I still believe LOOKING AT LUCKY would have won the Derby last year after a troubled 3rd in the SA Derby that you mentioned. Until the Haskell Invitational, Baffert was "lookin at unlucky" when peering down his shed row.

COLONEL JOHN, trained by former Baffert asst. Eoin Harty, had a horrendous trip in the '08 Derby as the 2nd choice to BIG BROWN but Harty brought him back to win the Travers off a Cali synth campaign.

I believe that owners/trainers thinking outside the box, prepping and training on synthetics in Kentucky, will develop more than their share of Classic winners.

To find a Triple Crown winner, that special animal will fly over any surface to join a select group. However, he or she will need to be touched by angels to overcome the inevitable potholes that derail champions.

Thanks for an enjoyable and thought-provoking read!