06/15/2010 1:16PM

108 Apples and 11.60 Oranges


Last weekend's four big nine-furlong stakes races were won by four of the five very early favorites for the Breeders' Cup Classic a mere 4 1/2 months away. While Rachel Alexandra's Fleur de Lis and Rail Trip's Californian received better final-time Beyer Speed Figures (both got 108's) than Zenyatta's Vanity (103) and Blame's Stephen Foster (102), the latter two finished significantly faster and into softer paces.

The track surfaces at Hollywood last Saturday (Californian) and Sunday (Vanity) and last Saturday at Churchill (Fleur de Lis and Foster) were similarly quick -- Hollywood was playing no more than three-tenths of a second quicker at 9f -- so it's possible to compare raw sectional and final times without much adjustment. (A difference of 0.30 seconds over nine furlongs means there's a difference of just over three-hundredths of a second per furlong.) So while we already all knew that Rachel Alexandra has superior early speed and that Zenyatta is one of the greatest finishers in racing history, their respective final furlongs were dramatically different: Rachel was extending her lead from 5 to 10 1/2 lengths while tiring with a final furlong in 12.88, whereas Zenyatta was relatively rocketing home in 11.60 seconds:

(Note: "LB" means lengths behind at each call. In the upper-left box, Rachel Alexandra was 0.5 lengths off the leader's half-mile in 47.25 seconds, so she ran her opening half in 47.34, using the calculation that a length=0.17 seconds.)

(Update: Chart above corrected to reflect correct Fleur de Lis mile time of 1:35.90 rather than 1:35.40 and final furlong in 12.88.)

Zenyatta's victory was perhaps the most dramatic in her incomparable career, and no mathematical analysis can fully reflect her accomplishments. Nor do final-time speed figures account for her doing whatever she must to win, even when losing ground and conceding weight to her opponents. Only the most literal-minded blockhead would say that Saturday's races show that if Rachel Alexandra and Zenyatta squared off at nine furlongs, Zenyatta would come up two lengths short.

Blame's finish was an impressive one as well. He ran down a good horse in Battle Plan, overcoming a four-length deficit through a final furlong in 12.02. He was making only his second start of the season and had plenty of upside. While his final time was 0.59 slower than Rachel's, it's hard not to think he could have made that up if each had needed to travel a 10th furlong, as they will in the Classic.

If all four of the weekend's winners make it to the Classic, they'll also have to deal with whatever 3-year-olds improve between now and then, as well as with Quality Road, whose victory in the Donn back on Feb. 6 remains a towering effort. Here's the above chart with the Donn added to the mix:

Rachel Alexandra and Rail Trip beat weaker fields than Blame and Zenyatta did, and were running freely by themselves in victory; things could be different if they have to tussle between themselves, put away Quality Road, and still hold off the cavalry. If everyone keeps thriving until the Breeders' Cup, that could be one spectacular final furlong at Churchill Downs on the first Saturday in November.