Sunday, May 31, 2015

2015 Triple Crown: If you're not leading after a mile...

Last year I wrote a piece on my old site about the previous Triple Crown winners and the running style each utilized in their Belmont victory. While the Belmont Stakes is the longest Grade 1 dirt race in America, most Triple Crown winners found success on or near the lead. Of the 10 non-Sir Barton winners of the Triple Crown, all but two were on the lead after a mile (Assault and Omaha, both 4th after eight furlongs).

Going to the lead doesn't mean the horse has to attempt Secretariat-style greatness but it does mean the best horse is putting pressure on the inferior horses in the early stages. From the piece from last year, I asked the question of what should a good speed horse do? -
I suppose it comes down to a choose your poison situation for a horse like California Chrome: do you take the stalking trip you had for the Santa Anita Derby, Kentucky Derby, and Preakness, knowing the rest of the field will likely apply pressure to your outside, inside, and all other sides at various point of the race - a sort of "Smarty Jones Scenario"? Or do you perhaps take the race to the rest of the field, dictating your own terms instead of the other way around? (Which could also end up being the Smarty Jones Scenario*.)

California Chrome: Not exactly a vote of confidence.

The Thoroughbred Racing Commentary published an in-depth look at California Chrome and his training ahead of this year's Royal Ascot meeting. (h/t to the Paulick Report) Rae Guest, the trainer tasked with Chrome's preparations in England, made some extremely candid statements in the piece which can only make me shake my head at this whole Chrome-to-Ascot.

Before I get to the quotes let me first express my interest in statements from trainers: About 99% of the time I pretend they don't exist. In the U.S., I can name about zero instances of a trainer saying anything other than, "the horse is doing great" or "he's full of energy" before a big race. How many times have you read or heard a quote from a trainer where they say "yeah, he's got not chance in this race"? That happens pretty much "never". Obviously, Rae Guest didn't attend the U.S. school of "Trainer Talk":

As we walk, I quiz Guest about how hard he feels Chrome's task will be at Ascot and his response is quite chastening.

"Impossible," he responded, after a pause for thought. "He's a good horse, there's no doubting that, and it's a very sporting challenge by his owners."

"But this is a new discipline for him. He's got to deal with a new track, a new style of racing, a right-handed bend, and an uphill finish." (emphasis added)

Um, wow.

Unless Guest is intentionally trying to tank the odds* on this horse (pretty much no chance in hell), you really can't have a trainer say something worse about a horse before a big race.

I'm as big of a fan as any of American horses traveling overseas to take on new and different challenges. I loved that Animal Kingdom took a shot at Royal Ascot, as well as the horses sent by both Wesley Ward and the Ramseys. But, in those instances, at least we are talking about turf horses and horses which were spotted in very specific races. This Chome deal is blind optimism or pure greed, I'm not sure which.

And think about Animal Kingdom for a moment: Animal Kingdom's pedigree was not only suited to running on grass, he was much more accomplished over the surface than Chrome. His second to Wise Dan in the Breeders' Cup Mile was far and away a better race than Chrome's Hollywood Derby score, and yet Animal Kingdom was no threat at Royal Ascot in a race much more suited to him (the Queen Anne) and where he, too, was trying to win after running in Dubai.

*Betfair has Chrome between 13/1 and 14.5/1 to win the Prince of Wales's Stakes. I wouldn't touch him if he was 40/1.

Sunday, May 17, 2015

Random thoughts on American Pharoah, the Belmont, and the Triple Crown

Things I think/believe after the 2015 Preakness:
  1. I thought before the Derby that American Pharoah and Mubtaahij were clearly the best of the bunch that I watched this spring. I bet accordingly and had a pretty good Derby Day. Fortunately, I was half right: AP is the real deal but the jury is still out on Mubtaahij (although I think he could be a lot better in the Belmont with a slower pace).
  2. If it rains on Belmont Day, I'm not sure any horse will be able to keep up with AP. His Rebel in the slop, paired with his Preakness victory, certainly doesn't inspire confidence that another colt can be better than AP on an off track. He simply eats that slop up. 
  3. I think AP's best chance to win the Belmont is to go to the lead and take it to his rivals. It's the same strategy I thought Espinoza should have employed with California Chrome last year. I know, I know - "it's a mile and a half! He'll be too tired at the end!" - is the line from the peanut gallery. But consider this: pretty much every horse in the field is not bred to go a mile and a half, that's just the nature of today's game.

    We don't breed horses to go 12 furlongs on dirt so what's the advantage of a speed horse slowing things down, allowing inferior horses stick around in a tightly bunched pack? The only thing that does is make it easier for the lesser colts to get the distance.

    I'm not suggesting that AP try to "Secretariat" the field, cause that's impossible. And it's not a Smarty Jones-situation where you had a colt with a clear pedigree issue that got rank and pulled to the front. Instead we have the most talented colt with a high cruising speed (and possible the best speed horse in the field), where I think it makes sense to make the others chase him.

    Send him to the front and run them into the ground. If non-speed types want to challenge him early, they'll be toast by the mile pole. Sure, you're vulnerable to the grinders late but that's going to be the case in any pace scenario at a mile and a half.

    [Plus just for historical purposes, check out every Triple Crown winner's Belmont chart - they all prompted the pace and ran on the lead. The path to the Crown is up front and without fear of the distance. IMHO.]
  4. I'm not sure how you make a figure for the Preakness that isn't either A) a complete guess, or B) simply giving AP the same number as his Rebel win and adjusting every other horse accordingly. The idea that you can create a variant from a sample size of one is beyond preposterous.
  5. There was a lot of talk about the whip and Espinoza's use of it during the Derby. But consider this little gem of a factoid:

    Espinoza hit AP zero times in the Rebel.
    Espinoza hit AP zero times in the Arkansas Derby.
    Espinoza hit AP an estimated 30 times in the Kentucky Derby.
    Espinoza hit AP zero times* in the Preakness.

    I don't know if any of that means anything, I just thought it was interesting.

    *Based on my viewing of the replay, it looks like Espinoza simply showed AP the whip but never actually reached back and hit him. So I'm calling it zero.
  6. AP's internal splits during the Preakness:

    1/4: 22.90
    1/2: 23.59
    3/4: 24.93
    Mile: 26.32
    Final 3/16: 20.72

    The final time was slow (as noted, ad nauseam, elsewhere), but the early pace was very strong. 
  7. Lots of quitters yesterday at Pimlico, including Dortmund, who clearly didn't want anything to do with that off track. He's a much better horse than what he showed in the Preakness but, I think it's safe to say, it's unwise to play this horse on an off track in the future.
  8. Tale of Verve didn't quit as he grinded his way to the runner-up position at the wire. The trip note might read "passed tiring horses" but I'd change that to "passed quitting horses."But regardless, he was one of the few that didn't spit the bit into the mud.

Saturday, May 16, 2015

Fight! Fight! Fight! Fight! Fight!

I got my money on the DRF guys since most of them are East Coasters and East Coasters know how to fight dirty.

I can't fault DRF for this tweet at all. When I turned on TVG this morning and saw them discussing DraftKings Fantasy Baseball I wanted to throw up. Actually, I had a different reaction - I wanted to stab my eyes out.