Why Are Trainers Abandoning the Prep Races?

Last week I wrote about the dramatic decline in the number of top stars participating in the big Breeders’ Cup preview weekends. Whether or not this is the beginning of a new trend likely will depend on how the “fresh” horses perform in the Breeders’ Cup.

But for now, perhaps it is more important to try to figure out the reasoning behind this new, and for many fans and racing secretaries, frustrating, method of preparing for not only the Breeders’ Cup, but the Kentucky Derby.

Once upon a time, not too long ago, Thoroughbred trainers considered prep races, well, prep races; short for prepare. As in prepare your horse for the ultimate goal. As in have him or her primed, fit, and sharp for their big test, which in the case of the Breeders’ Cup, often determines the Eclipse Award winners.

A number of racing writers have written columns or blogs on this subject recently, pointing out the unusually high number of big-name horses who will staying in the barn over the next two weekends and going into the Breeders’ Cup off two- and three-month layoffs.

Many people (a reporter’s euphemistic way of saying “me”) feel this could be an alarming trend, reducing races that once were considered prestigious events to run-of-the-mill affairs for mostly second tier horses with far less fan appeal to pick up big bucks and grade 1 status. Of course, some of them no doubt will go on to win Breeders’ Cup races, but how many is the important question. In the meantime, our biggest stars will be sitting on the bench.

We have not seen anything quite like this before, at least not on this scale. Trainers in general will see something work for another trainer and have a tendency to attempt the same approach, especially when the pied piper is Bob Baffert.

So, Baffert wins the Breeders’ Cup Classic with 3-year-olds American Pharoah and Arrogate coming off the Travers Stakes, a 10-week layoff, and it becomes the thing to do. As mentioned in my previous column, eight of the top 10 horses on the weekly NYRA poll are training up to the Breeders’ Cup without a prep within two months of the event. Baffert has three of the top four favorites for the Breeders’ Cup Classic and all are going into the race off layoffs, as is Baffert’s BC Sprint favorite Drefong and the top-ranked horse in America, Gun Runner, trained by Steve Asmussen, who twice prepped Curlin for the Classic in the Jockey Club Gold Cup.

No one (meaning me again) says this is the wrong way to bring a horse up to the Breeders’ Cup. It just makes it difficult for the fans to embrace a horse and feel close to that horse when they go months at a time without seeing him or her perform. And as a result, it certainly does not help in promoting the sport or luring fans to the track for these big weekends.

But if a trainer honestly feels that is the best way of winning a Breeders’ Cup race, you can’t argue with him. But the fact that so many trainers all of a sudden are adopting that philosophy, you do have to wonder if they really believe that is what is best for their horse or are just following the success of a master like Baffert.

Judging by this potentially new trend, which has also carried over to the Kentucky Derby trail, it is apparent that prep races no longer are considered preps as much as they are obstacles. Could this trend actually be born of fear? Fear of having your horse exposed before the big event and having to end your journey or continue with great trepidation? No trainer with sky high aspirations wants their dream shattered by having his horse turn in a poor effort in the prep. So play it safe and stay in the barn and train him or her up to the race, and at least you will get there. And if you get there, you have a chance.

The other factor involved likely are the speed figures, whether it be Ragozin or Thoro-Graph or Brisnet or TimeformUS, or whatever figures you choose to follow. The Daily Racing Form used to be called the bible for horseplayers, in good part because of its past performances. It was the only way to handicap a race. But the bible for many, especially trainers, is now the speed figures. And while they swear by them and make their decisions based on them, it breeds a different kind of fear. Not the fear of losing, but the fear of winning – too impressively in the prep race. As disheartening as it is to have your horse run a poor race in the prep, it is just as disheartening to have him or her run an outrageously fast speed figure and run off the TV screen, which spells b-o-u-n-c-e, that dreaded word that was spawned from the Ragozin and later Thoro-Graph figures.

The legendary trainer Bobby Frankel swore by the Ragozin figures, and when his colt Aptitude demolished his field by 10 lengths in the Jockey Club Gold Cup, which was then run three weeks before the Breeders’ Cup Classic, Frankel actually was dejected after the race, for in his mind he did not just win the Gold Cup, he lost the Classic. There was no way Aptitude was not going to bounce off that effort. It didn’t help when his Beyer speed figure came back a spectacular 123. Frankel was convinced the Gold Cup had cooked him. Aptitude finished eighth in the Classic as the 2-1 favorite.

That apparently has now become a trainer’s biggest fear. So the only way to avoid that from happening is to avoid the prep race altogether and convince yourself that training up to the big race is the best way to go. Even if a trainer doesnt follow the Sheets or other speed figures, there is still the concern of peaking a race too early that may very well force them to skip the prep.

I would never attempt to suggest this is how any particular trainer is thinking. These are merely possibilities as to how they may be thinking.

The bottom line is, this is yet another new aspect of racing we may have to get used to, as the sport continues to move more and more into the realm of numbers, while distancing itself from the hands-on, in person, more simplified approach we used to know. This is an age where one can place a bet on their cell phone faster than it used to take to dial a number on a rotary phone.

It is called progress and change. We should get a good idea after this year’s Breeders’ Cup whether this new approach to training for big races is progress or a temporary step backwards. All that we know right now is that there will be a lot more guesswork into handicapping the Breeders’ Cup, just as there is handicapping the Kentucky Derby. Right or wrong, it will be interesting to see which direction this change takes us and to what extent it affects the sport.

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