03/23/2010 6:26PM

Pace and a Boycott

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Last Saturday's Florida Derby at Gulfstream and Prima Donna at Oaklawn look like textbook cases of how pace can affect the final times and even the outcomes of races.

On final time alone, one might at first decide that Rule's tiring third-place finish at Gulfstream removes him from serious classic consideration, or that Hot Dixie Chick's winning return was a cut below her 2009 form, but it's worth considering whether their early exertions discolored their overall performances.

Both tracks had other high-quality events at the same distance as the featured races for 3-year-old, facilitating direct comparisons. Let's look first at Gulfstream, where the G2 Bonnie Miss for 3-year-old fillies and the G3 Rampart for older fillies were run at the same distance as the main event on the Florida Derby card:


[Note: I used the formula of 0.17 seconds = 1 length in computing each horse's individual fractions.]

Clearly, the early pace of the Florida Derby was significantly faster than in the other two 9f stakes. Rule, who dueled head and head for the lead with Pulsion for the first six furlongs, was the only one of the top three finishers in any of those races to run his opening half-mile in under 47 seconds, and he did it in 46.48. While he was just a head off the lead after that opening half, the horses who would end up surrounding him finishing 1st, 2nd and 4th were 11th, 9th and 10th at that point.

Whether Rule can rate comfortably, and whether he is going to get 10 furlongs on Derby Day, remain legitimate and open questions, but I think he may have run just as well if not better than the two horses who finished in front of him Saturday after benefitting from the hot pace in front of them.

Hot Dixie Chick was the quickest 2-year-old filly in the country last summer, and like stablemate Rachel Alexandra a week earlier was making her first start since Labor Day weekend. Sent off at 1-to-5 (off a preposterous 6-5 morning line), she won by 5 3/4 lengths against a weak field, all of which looked swell until you compared her final time to the two races preceding it:

 

A winning Beyer of just 84 for a filly who ran a 100 and a 103 as a 2-year-old -- while running six hundredths slower than a N1x allowance race half an hour earlier and 19 Beyer points below another ungraded stakes race -- might seem like an alarmingly weak comeback. Maybe it was. But Hot Dixie Chick's early fractions are so dramatically faster than the stakes race for older males that I'm not convinced she didn't just cook herself early. It also might pay to be skeptical of the top finishers in the Hot Springs -- who cruised through that slow opening half in a tight group with plenty left to sprint home -- and give some extra credit to the closers who trailed that tepid pace and couldn't gain late.

 --The political situation regarding racing in New York is so outrageous that it's hard to argue with anyone's frustrated reaction, but the horsemen's self-proclaimed "boycott" of Sunday's first race at Aqueduct was a peculiar piece of political theatre in that it seemed to have the wrong target.

We get the word "boycott" from Capt. Charles Cunningham Boycott, a 19th Century English land agent whose ruthlessness evicting tenants in Ireland led to a campaign of ostracism against him by his own employees and local merchants. The idea of a boycott is to injure the wrongdoer. By failing to bring their horses to the detention barn Sunday morning, however, the protesting horsemen inconvenienced only the fans who had spent time and effort handicapping the race and Aqueduct, which lost its betting commissions on the race. The horsemen have no dispute with the fans or the track.

The whole thing was an uncomfortable charade. Track officials knew for several days of the anticipated action but couldn't say anything about it until it became official Sunday morning when the horses did not arrive at the detention barn. At that point Aqueduct put out a terse statement reporting that with no mention of the horsemen's action, leading at least one racing channel reporting the story as if a van had mysteriously gotten lost on the Belt Parkway.

There had to be better ways for the horsemen to publicize their rally in the Belmont Park parking lot later that day. Instead, they annoyed their customers and left the impression that Aqueduct was doing something worthy of protest. While virtually everyone agrees with their stance that the state has been shockingly neglectful of racing, it might be more effective in the future to make clear that it is the state, not the fans or the track, that is causing the problem.