04/12/2010 12:57PM

Different Routes, Same Neighborhood


The Beyers were similar for the Apple Blossom (95), Arkansas Derby (98) and Blue Grass (94), but the circumstances that produced them could hardly have been more different.  The Apple Blossom was a slow-paced paid workout for a champion who was neither required nor asked to run her best race; the Arkansas Derby was a fast-paced race over a quicker track where a front-runner grimly and improbably held on; as for the Blue Grass, good luck making much sense of it.

The figures for all three cards (Friday and Saturday at Oaklawn, and Saturday at Keeneland) were straightforward and unambiguous -- no weather issues, split variants and sprint/route discrepancies; all evidence pointed to a consistent variant that worked for the entire card.

Let's start with the Apple Blossom. Zenyatta's raw time of 1:50.71 can't be compared to previous runnings (which were at a mile and a sixteenth), but her figure of 95 was the lowest in 21 years of recorded Beyers for the race and far below what other past and future Hall of Famers such as Bayakoa (119), Paseana (114) and Azeri (112) earned in victory. Zenyatta herself earned a 104 winning the 2008 edition of the race. 

The 6th race was the only other route on the card, but falls right into line with the day's other races, and it's simply impossible to give the Apple Blossom a stroonger final-time figure. The runner-up, 35-1 Taptam, gets an 88 for the race, consistent with her career tops of 88, 87 and 85 in three of her last five starts.

Obviously Zenyatta is capable of running faster (her previous 11 Beyers were all bigger, including two 108's and a 112 in the BC Classic.) As a deep closer who is ridden positionally (i.e. drop back to last regardless of the fractions), she is going to run weak final-time figures sometimes, especially when the pace is slow and the competition can be disdainfully dispatched with a single furlong of top effort. Both of those things happened in the Apple Blossom, which looked and felt like morning exercise against overmatched workmates.

The Oaklawn track was quicker for Saturday's traditionally route-heavy card, where the Arkansas Derby was the fourth of six consecutive two-turn races:

Note how much quicker the fractions were in the Arkansas Derby than in the other routes, which makes it surprising that the top three finishers ran 1-2-3 around the track. I can't make a case for a speed-biased surface -- the half-mile running positions of the eventual top-three finishers in the five surrounding routes were 8-7-3, 3-9-2, 2-3-8, 3-6-5, 1-6-3 (the latter a front-running victory by a 7-10 shot in the slowest-paced race of the day.) While it seems like a stretch to get Line of David to wire what's going to be a much stronger field going an extra furlong in the Derby, his was a sharp and gritty effort.

The Blue Grass is quickly becoming more of an annual Polytrack mish-mosh than a true Grade 1 prep for the Derby, and this year's edition was especially wacky. In a nine-horse field, seven horses were between 3.0-1 and 5.70-1, with the other two at 30-1 and 40-1. Odysseus, the only dirt stakes-winner in the field, tired badly and came out of the race with an injury. Pleasant Prince, the Florida Derby runner-up, barely ran a step. The accomplished grass horses in the field ran only in spots. And alone at the finish, 4 1/4 lengths clear, was 40-1 Stately Victor, who had been off the board in four straight N1x allowance races on both dirt and grass.

There were only two other Polytrack routes on the card:

I'd like to be more excited about the winner, who's from Ghostzapper's first crop and from a Dynaformer mare. Three-year-olds can suddenly put it all together and get dangerously good out of nowhere, and Stately Victor showed enough raw spark in his first two career starts in New York that he always had the chance to turn into a good horse. But a 94 doesn't make him competitive with the Derby favorites, and  I can't get a handle on what really happened in the Blue Grass -- did he really run a breakout race or did no one else fire a representative shot?