Sunday, February 22, 2015

Fountain of Youth: Tiring track or tired colts?

If you were watching Saturday’s Fountain of Youth with the hopes of catching a glimpse of a potential Derby-winning colt you probably came away a bit disappointed. That’s not to suggest that the Derby winner couldn’t be among this year’s field of three-year-old Fountain of Youth participants, it has more to do with the unimpressive way most of the field finished the mile and a sixteenth trip around the main track.

As Upstart lumbered across the finish line at Gulfstream Park I couldn’t help but noticed the sectional times at the top of the HRTV screen with the thoughts of “oooh, that ain’t good” running through my head. The early fractions were solid if unspectacular – 24.27 for the opener; 47.87 at the half; 1:11.65 – and then things started to fall by the wayside. The field then clicked off 1:38.98 at the mile - a whopping 27.33 fourth quarter split – followed by an “about-the-only-way-to-call-it” pedestrian 7.82 for the final 1/16th of a mile on their way to a final time of 1:46.80.

Horse 1/4 1/2 3/4 Mile Finish
Upstart 24.69 23.38 23.92 26.99 7.30
Itsaknockout 24.47 23.66 24.24 26.72 7.71
Frammento 25.20 24.21 24.50 26.26 6.87
Frosted 24.38 23.55 23.72 27.59 7.85
Gorgeous Bird 24.89 23.75 24.30 27.30 7.30
Bluegrass Singer 24.27 23.60 23.90 27.82 7.99
Juan and Bina 24.58 23.64 24.18 27.99 7.51
Danny Boy 25.31 23.86 24.07 27.47 7.36

The raw sectionals and final time aren’t really the issue so much as how those numbers came about and the manner in which they compared to other races on the Gulfstream main track on Saturday. The Fountain of Youth was the only two-turn race on the card and one of just six that ran over the main track. Was the track “fast”, “slow” or “tiring” on Saturday? I think that’s a tough guess, well. somewhat; I think it is clear that is wasn't a fast strip on Saturday, but how slow and/or tiring was it? And, more importantly, was the Fountain of Youth unimpressive in the context of the day’s races? I think there’s some evidence to say “yes” to that question, but it’s certainly not 100% absolute in either direction.

The key race to rating the Fountain of Youth is, for me, Race 8 on the card, the Grade 2 Davona Dale. While the Davona Dale was not a two-turn race, it was telling in terms of how I'm rating the FOY. If the end of the Fountain of Youth was a result of the track conditions affecting the horses, then I’m less likely to take a negative view of the finish. If, however, the other races on the day didn’t finish as slowly as the FOY, then it’s hard to give the finish of the feature race an excuse due to the surface.

Anyway, in the Davona Dale with 3yo fillies going a one-turn mile, the final ¼ mile came home in 27.01 seconds. The Fountain of Youth has that aforementioned 27.33 fourth quarter. The early pace of the Davona Dale* was significantly quicker than the FOY: 23.18 for the opening quarter and 45.60 for the half – over a second faster in the first split and over two seconds faster at the half. The FOY did not have an exceptionally strong pace that would invariably lead to a meltdown late in the race. In fact, the pace seems especially moderate when compared to the Davona Dale, which was run at a distance just a 1/16th of a mile shorter.

*Incidentally, the Davona Dale was wired by the ridiculously under bet 27/1 shot Ekati’s Phaeton (she won the G3 Old Hat at GP early in the meet and had trouble in her last race), so it’s not like horses on the lead were punished for quick early fractions.

While I can certainly see evidence that the track was tiring today, I’m not ready to place all of the blame on the FOY finish to simply the surface condition. I would expect the FOY to finish up quicker than the Davona Dale based on the pace and the relative strength of the field. Upstart is considered one of the top contenders for the Derby, while the Davona Dale offered a solid field it didn’t pack near the star power of the FOY. Given those considerations, I’m ultimately left with the view that the FOY was simply a lackluster race.

If the colts bounce back in their next start, whether the Florida Derby or elsewhere, then perhaps we just chalk this race up as an abnormality. But I know one thing; I’d be very interested in a well-placed shipper in the Florida Derby and I wouldn’t be scared off by any of the FOY top finishers.

A comparison of the splits from the other dirt races on the card:
# Conditions 1/4 1/2 3/4 Mile Finish
2 MdClm 50k, 3yo 22.36 23.78

3 MSW, 3yo 22.76 22.95 25.60
4 G3 Rampart, 3up, f&m 23.52 22.43 24.22
6 G3 GP Sprint, 4up 22.63 22.48 25.86
8 G2 Davona Dale, 3yo, f 23.18 22.42 25.05 13.25 13.76
11 G2 FOY, 3yo 24.27 23.60 23.78 27.33 7.82


Take Down

Another source of contention in the Fountain of Youth was the decision of the stewards to take down first past the line Upstart due to interference in the stretch, resulting in Itsaknockout being place first. I think two things were clear from the pan-shot replay and the head-on replay: 

1. Upstart definitely came out and caused Itsaknockout to alter his path, and
2. Upstart was probably going to win anyway.

For me, the decision ultimately comes down to this question: If there is clear interference, how bad does it have to be in order to DQ a horse, even if it the other horse would never have won? Or, to put it another way, does the interference have to affect the order of finish to be a DQ or can simply an egregious act be bad enough to warrant taking down a horse?

It appears to me that the stewards based their decision on the interference being bad enough to take down the winner even though it probably didn’t cost the other horse a place. Because, truthfully, that’s really the only way to conclude the Upstart should be DQ’d.

The Twitter reaction fell into the usual chaos: some declaring that the winner had to come down while others concluding the decision was as a travesty of justice. Personally, I didn’t have a problem with the DQ as Upstart drifted significantly during the stretch; at some point the damn horse needs to run straight. It’s a tough call, at least from my view, but I think it would have been much easier to keep Upstart up if he was clear of Itsaknockout when he started to drifted to the stands.

The DQ of Upstart, and the reaction following it, seems to be more about the consistency (or inconsistency) of the stewards. Unfortunately, no matter how much horseplayers bitch and complain about head-scratching DQs (or non-DQs), this is an area that probably never changes in the future.

As long as human beings are watching the video and drawing their own conclusions, there will always be debate and disagreement over the results. Even in the case of the Fountain of Youth, I read opinions of people that were starkly different after viewing the exact same evidence, the exact same video. If we pulled together a 100 players and had them watch the stretch drive of the FOY, we'd probably come up with a range of about four opinions: Clear DQ; Close Call But DQ, Close Call But No DQ, and Clear No DQ. All you need in the stewards room is one or two of each group and the decision becomes difficult and, sadly, varied from incident to incident. 

Just my $.02.

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