Monday, May 4, 2009

The First Monday In May

Well the 135th running of the Derby is over and I can’t help but feel somewhat let down by the event. The weather was horrible, producing wildly erratic track conditions and virtually every horse with a pulse was either scratched leading up to the event or injured in the running.

That said, congratulations to Mine That Bird and his connections. When you win; where it rates in the history of race is really secondary. Their names are forever linked with the greatest race in the sport and nobody can take that away from them.

The real question many have wondered aloud is how did this happen? How did Mine That Bird actually pull this off? The two best horses, I Want Revenge and Quality Road, pulled out to injury. This left a void in genuine class and speed. Two second tier horses scratched in Square Eddie and Win Willy, allowing a far greater amount of lesser horses in. The bad weather and track conditions turned the race into a free for all, especially when the best horse that did make it into the gate (Friesan Fire) was also injured just a few strides into the race. This is the type of setup that produces a wild long shot winner.

You see, 50-1 shots don’t win highly contentious races without external factors being involved. Look at the last shock winner, Giacomo. The weather was perfect and the field made it into the gate intact, but that edition had the second most brutal pace in Derby history. The race fell apart and under those circumstances a long shot plodder could win.

This is not to completely disregard Mine That Bird. His final quarter mile was amongst the fastest in Derby history, only second behind the great Secretariat. Calvin Borel put in one of the finest rides in race’s history as well. That horse doesn’t win if he has any other jockey, because they would not risk possible injury by squeezing through the rail on a 50-1 shot.

With that said the final time was average and the winning Beyer figure (105) is tied for the second lowest figure ever earned by a Derby winner. (Giacomo's was the lowest at 100) Now before the anti-speed figure crowd starts complaining that the figure should be low because of the track, understand that the speed figures take into account how the track is playing. That’s the very point for speed figures to begin with, to compare horses running on different tracks and surface conditions.

The figures received by the 2nd-4th place finishers who were virtually inseparable at the wire were not all that interesting. Pioneerof The Nile was second by a head earned a 95 figure. Musket Man and Papa Clem followed with identical figs. Pinoeer of the Nile actually ran to the best of his ability Saturday. His 95 figure was better than his San Felipe score two back and identical to his wins in the Santa Anita Derby and Robert B Lewis. Musket Man also ran exactly up to his ability with his 95. Pap Clem regressed back to his average after a career higher in the Arkansas Derby. He was probably set to regress after the Ark so his effort is fairly logical.

A debate raging since the Derby has been whether Pioneer’s effort effectively eliminates the idea of discarding synthetic runners in the Derby. I actually think his effort underscores the rationale I as well as many others had. As mentioned the best two horses in the division didn't make the race and the best one that did, got injured right after breaking from the gate. Despite this Pioneer still lost to a 50-1 shot. The truth is, there were so many defections that when mixed with the track condition it was not some great revelation that he was able to hit the board. As I had mentioned Saturday with the announcement of I Want Revenge being scratched, the race became a hell of a lot slower, stating...

"I suspected a 110+ Beyer would be necessary to win this edition with him in. With his defection, you could see the race garnering something 5 points lower, which opens the race up to far more entrants. For sure, half the field just got a hell of a lot more confident about their chances."

We got the exact regression of 5 points I had figured and the race got so slow that Pioneer's 96 was enough to finish second.

Which then brings me to another point about Pioneer. He is actually a live horse for the Preakness in my estimation. He is a touch slow and needs to improve in the brilliance category, but now that he has dirt experience he should be able to move forward over the surface. Which is what people forget about the synthetic debate. No one is arguing a synthetic horse cannot be useful over dirt; far too many have, like Colonel John last year who failed to fire in the Derby but did win the Travers on dirt. The only argument is that a synthetic horses' first start on dirt, also happening to be in the Derby, is a bad combination, especially at a short price. That has not been proven wrong, even in such an atypical running like this year.

We'll nothing left to do but look ahead to the Preakness. I'll start breaking down the second jewel tomorrow and hopefully the Preakness will draw a talented field and provide the type of race we were hoping for on Saturday.

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