Haskin's Derby/Preakness Wrap-up: Fortnight Follies

The next time a trainer mentions his or her concerns about running back in two weeks after the Kentucky Derby (gr. I), can we pay no attention to it? It is now 25 of the last 28 Preakness (gr. I) winners that ran in the Derby, and one of the ones who didn’t was Rachel Alexandra, who ran two weeks earlier in the Kentucky Oaks (gr. I). Despite the fantastic performance turned by Bernardini in the Preakness, let’s remember, the Derby winner, Barbaro, only ran an eighth of a mile before suffering an injury. The only other new shooter to win the Preakness was Red Bullet in the mud.

This year, horses coming out of the Derby (five of them) finished first, second, and fourth, and another horse finished sixth after losing a shoe and getting cut up in the race.

Is it possible that today’s Thoroughbreds are more resilient than most trainers think? The belief here is that horses get on a roll, or an adrenaline high, which is why the majority of Derby–Preakness winners run more impressively in the Preakness. If the Derby takes such a toll on a horse how come Funny Cide and Smarty Jones were able to come back in two weeks and win the Preakness by nine and 11 lengths, respectively? How could Afleet Alex have come back in two weeks after a hard race in the Derby to run one of the most amazing races in Triple Crown history? Where was Big Brown’s regression in the Preakness after his stunning Derby victory in only his fourth career start? After his gut-wrenching stretch battle in the Derby, how could Silver Charm have come back in two weeks and score another gut-wrenching victory? Why were Real Quiet and Charismatic able to come back in two weeks and improve off their Derby victories?

And we’re just talking about the so-called “fragile” horses of recent years. Did finishing 16th in the Derby prevent Louis Quatorze from equaling the stakes record in the Preakness? Did finishing 10th in the Derby as the favorite prevent Hansel from winning the Preakness by seven lengths?

Isn’t it time for trainers to stop worrying about coming back in two weeks, especially when they run their horses in the Derby off five- and six-week layoffs? In the 1940s and ‘50s, of the 20 Kentucky Derby winners, 12 of them ran four days before the Derby, and many of them worked a half-mile in between. The Blue Grass was nine days before the Derby and the Wood Memorial and Arkansas Derby were two weeks before the Derby.

We’re not criticizing trainers for voicing their concerns about coming back in two weeks. That is the conservative thinking that is ingrained in many of today’s trainers.

The bottom line is five trainers this year did indeed come back in two weeks, concerns or no concerns, with mainly successful results, and however reluctant they were to do it, they at least did and deserve credit for that. All we’re saying is that perhaps it is not as excruciating a task as one might think, as long as the horse comes out of the Derby in good shape. After all, the horses keep proving year after year they are more than up to it. And if they do get past the Preakness, then trainers can start concerning themselves with keeping them going in the Belmont. That will take more skill and horsemanship than getting them ready for the Preakness.

Pace perception

Sometimes there is more to pace than just the bare numbers. One of the main topics of conversation since the Derby was how slow the pace was, and how Shackleford set the slowest three-quarter fraction (1:13.40) since 1947. There is no disputing that time, as that is what the teletimer read.

But there are times when your eyes and brain contradict what the teletimer says. It has been widely acknowledged by several trainers that the Churchill Downs surface on Derby Day was very deep and cuppy as it dried out following more than a week of rain. They felt the surface, while obviously safer, wasn’t as tight as it used to be when we had several years of blistering fractions. Those were the days when they had deep and often-times cuppy surfaces in the days and weeks leading up to the Derby and then a rock-hard surface on Derby Day.

The point we’re trying to make is that from a visual standpoint, it did not look as if they were going in 1:13.40. Going that slow you would expect the majority of the field to be pretty well bunched up. Instead, the field was strung out nearly 20 lengths, hardly an indication of an extremely slow pace. That would mean the favorite, Dialed In, ran his three-quarters in almost 1:17. This is a horse whose average three-quarter split going into the Derby was 1:12.20. Did Dialed In really run 24 lengths slower than he’d ever run before, legitimately?

It’s true that the field as a whole came home very fast, but we still have our doubts that pace-setting Shackleford and his closest pursuers were merely loping along and not expending any energy. If they were, then the Derby was the oddest looking slow-pace scenario we can recall seeing. In short, the eyes contradicted the tote board.

As for the Preakness, the slow second and third fractions following a rapid opening quarter was said to be the main contributing factor to Animal Kingdom’s and Dialed In’s defeat. Although they went in :22.69, :46.87 and 1:12.01, let’s not forget that in the 1 1/16-mile William Donald Schaeffer Stakes (gr. III), solid older stakes horses like the pace-setting Colizeo went in :24.38, :48.83, and 1:13:19, and Colizeo was caught in the stretch by Apart. The bottom line here is, the three-quarter split, as slow as it may have been following such a fast opening quarter, still was a full second faster than older horses went going an eighth of a mile shorter.

Crop dusting

OK, so this is a mediocre crop of 3-year-olds, one of the slowest ever. What else is new? We hear that almost every year. One of those years we heard it was in 1987 after a stumbling Alysheba picked himself up and still ran down a weaving Bet Twice to win the Kentucky Derby in a sluggish 2:03 2/5, the slowest Derby in 13 years. Alysheba’s jockey, Chris McCarron, in defending his colt, put it best when he said, “He’s still just a kid.” When Alysheba breezed a half in :50 3/5 before the Preakness, the media all but threw him out for working so slowly. Now, most horses don’t even work between the Derby and Preakness.

Fast forward to the fall of 1987 and just about everyone is proclaiming that very same crop one of the greatest ever, with the likes of Alysheba, Bet Twice, Gulch, Java Gold, Lost Code, Gone West, Cryptoclearance, Afleet, and Polish Navy.

As a point of interest this year, we’re all aware that Animal Kingdom came home the second-fastest final quarter and half-mile in the history of the Derby, second only to Secretariat. Well, for good measure, he came his final three-sixteenths in the Preakness in about :18 3/5, again one of the fastest in the history of the race. And Shackleford’s :19 1/5 was one of the fastest closing fractions by a horse on the pace.

How about if we wait for these kids to grow up before putting the stamp of disapproval on them?

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Our condolences to Shackleford’s co-owner and co-breeder Mike Lauffer who celebrated his colt’s Preakness victory on Saturday knowing he’d be attending the funeral of his future son-in-law on Monday. His daughter’s fiancé had died unexpectedly in his sleep several days earlier at the age of 25.

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It looks as if five horses from the Derby who skipped the Preakness will come back in the Belmont Stakes, where they will square off with the three hearty souls – Animal Kingdom, Shackleford, and Mucho Macho Man -- who dared to compete in all three races. They are Nehro (second), Master of Hounds (fifth), Santiva (sixth), Brilliant Speed (seventh), and Stay Thirsty (12th). Look for Nehro and Master of Hounds to take heavy action at the windows.

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Going a bit off topic, is there any chance that in the year of the Royal Wedding, Carlton House is not going to give The Queen her first ever English Derby victory? Good luck betting against that one. If you want to see the wildest celebration ever at Epsom make sure you tune in to the Derby telecast this year.

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