12/02/2013 10:07AM

Pace Strategies, and Other Notes

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Clutching, grabbing, dumb … there are a lot of things you can call it. But the phenomenon of jockeys literally taking the speed out of American racing is not a new one. It began decades ago on the turf side of the game with more and more of our grass races run in the European style of slow early, fast late, and it has evolved to the point now where a turf route here with an honest pace is more the exception rather than the rule.

What is a fairly recent development, however, is this is now happening with greater frequency in our dirt races. Every day, for reasons that often remain a mystery to the general betting public, speed horses are taken back out of the gate, usually with profound repercussions. These horses concede their primary advantage (their speed), and far more often than not, that puts them at a disadvantage they are unable to overcome. Moreover, a speed horse unexpectedly taking back frequently results in another speed horse finding himself alone on an uncontested lead, completely altering the complexion of the race in ways that no one without prior knowledge of the strategy could have foreseen. And as every bettor knows, the most dangerous horse in dirt racing is the one with an uncontested early lead.

But this clutching and grabbing thing in our dirt racing may have reached critical mass Saturday in the Remsen at Aqueduct. We can only hope. This Remsen was supposed to be an important event. It had Honor Code, the future book Kentucky Derby favorite in Las Vegas, and another immensely promising prospect in Cairo Prince. Instead, this Remsen was a joke. Here’s why:

25.84, 52.74, and 1:17.56.

Those were the early fractions of the Remsen, run at nine furlongs around two turns. Two races and one hour earlier at Aqueduct, on a day when weather was no factor whatsoever, Wedding Toast won the Comely Stakes, also at nine furlongs around two turns, after setting fractions of 23.82, 48.04, and 1:11.98. I know it was a different sort of race with good older horses, but in the race before the Remsen, the one turn Cigar Mile, the fractions were 22.59, 45.39, and 1:09.79. This only helps to underscore how ridiculous the Remsen pace was.

I mean, raise your hand if you thought Honor Code would be running ahead of Cairo Prince turning into the backstretch. No one? That’s what I thought.

Because of the pace, or more accurately, the lack of it, this Remsen was unable to fulfill one of its primary functions. Oh, Honor Code proved good and game Saturday to come back and gain the narrow decision, but we already knew he was good and game after his second in the Champagne. Cairo Prince was also good and game, but we already knew he was good after his Nashua win. We did learn that third place finisher Wicked Strong is an improving colt, but let’s not go overboard on how well he was going at the finish. It wasn’t like Wicked Strong came from 10 miles out if it. He was right with Cairo Prince in the run down the backstretch, and only fell marginally back in the fourth quarter mile because the pace finally heated up, and he couldn’t keep up at that particular point.

However, one of the new things this Remsen should have demonstrated was if Honor Code could have better positional speed against an honest route pace. This was not an insignificant point for a Derby favorite who showed a tendency in his first two starts to almost lose contact with the field early. This Remsen was also supposed to show us if Cairo Prince could be as effective in a legitimate two turn event. We will have to wait for another day to find all of this out. Yes, Honor Code was much closer early, but only because they were walking. Yes, Cairo Prince stayed on Saturday, but who knows if he will be able to stay a route when he has to work harder to remain close to an honest (meaning much faster) route pace. This Remsen was entertaining, with a rousing finish. But because of the way it was run, it proved nothing.

Something must be done to nip this grabbing epidemic in the bud, and it falls on the stewards. It is the responsibility of the stewards to ensure reasonably formful racing. But when a jockey of one speed horse takes back enabling another speed horse to shake loose, or when a horse (Cairo Prince) is running behind a horse (Honor Code) that he figured to be 10 lengths in front of early, that is not formful racing.

Stewards should be aggressive, demand explanations for why horses were ridden the way they were when the situation calls for it, and (this is important) be transparent with their findings. And that is because if horseplayers can’t rely on something as basic as a speed duel happening when it is supposed to happen, then the intellectual aspect of handicapping is undermined, and the game devolves into something as random as the spin of a roulette wheel.

Some quick thoughts on some other Thanksgiving weekend happenings:

By virtue of his victory in the Grade 1 Clark Handicap over older horses, it is obviously much, much easier to vote for Will Take Charge to be champion 3-year-old male. In fact, you can now make the case that with his Travers and Pennsylvania Derby wins, and near miss in the Breeders’ Cup Classic to go along with his Clark, Will Take Charge owned the last third to half of the season in a way no other 3-year-old male owned the first part of the year. It is amazing how one win can change your perspective.

That said, I suspect both Will Take Charge and Game On Dude, who was beaten just a head in the Clark, are on a downward form cycle. I think the Clark’s slow final eighth of 13.20 and the modest winning Beyer of 101 prove that. But that doesn’t mean either can’t cycle back up again.

I think the toll of competing at a high level over a series of starts might have also shown in Tiz Flirtatious’s fifth as the favorite in the Matriarch. Still, you can’t take anything away from the improving Egg Drop, who was the definition of game coming again to win the photo.

We saw the good Flat Out in the Cigar Mile and I feel that’s partly because at this point in a career that now might be over, a mile is his best distance.

While on the Cigar Mile, I liked Private Zone in the Breeders’ Cup Sprint, in which he went off at less than 7-2. I know Private Zone didn’t run well in the Sprint, but his prior form was excellent, and I have no idea how he was let go at 32-1 Saturday. He finished a terrific second. I also thought Groupie Doll was an excellent fourth and Clearly Now was a fine fifth, both after significant trouble. Groupie Doll should win next time.

If Got Lucky moved out to split Penwith and Stopchargingmaria into the stretch instead of diving to the rail inside of Penwith, I think she would have won the Demoiselle.

But I wasn’t enthralled with the Demoiselle, or with the Golden Rod or Kentucky Jockey Club, either. My belief is Stonetastic is a nice filly, but is, at least at this point in her career, distance challenged. So for her to hold on and be beaten only two lengths finishing third in the Golden Rod makes me skeptical of the first two finishers, Vexed and Bird Maker.

As for the Kentucky Jockey Club, the race lost a lot with the scratch of Almost Famous. In his absence, Tapiture registered a decisive maiden-breaking win. But even though Tapiture won going away, he ran only 32 hundredths of a second faster than Vexed did winning the Golden Rod, with comparable paces.