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Preakness and other thoughts
People in our game who ride the fence annoy me. Horse racing, and horse playing, requires opinion. I have a tough time mustering respect for people who either can’t, or are too afraid, to whittle a 10 horse field down to less than eight live contenders. Take a stand, for crying out loud. Folks who’ve been around racing for more than five minutes know exactly what I’m talking about.
I offer the above so you’ll understand that I wish my day after assessment of California Chrome’s Preakness victory wasn’t, in a sense, on the fence. I like what California Chrome did Saturday. He remains clearly the best 3-year-old male in the land. But it’s impossible to watch a Kentucky Derby winner win the Preakness without viewing it in the context of the Belmont Stakes. And when I think about what California Chrome did Saturday in that way, I, as a fan, was concerned.
First, the good stuff. California Chrome fired off the two-week turnaround, and he withstood having to move earlier than he probably would have preferred when Social Inclusion forced his hand early on the far turn. California Chrome again broke the race open with his patented brush in upper stretch, and he determinedly turned back a very live opponent in Ride On Curlin, who ran big with a more helpful ride after being subjected to an absurd journey in the Derby. And not insignificantly, California Chrome ran fast enough in the Preakness to earn a 105 Beyer Figure, which makes the historically low 97 Beyer he received in the Derby look even more like an aberration.
Now, for the causes for concern vis a vis California Chrome, and completing a Triple Crown sweep in the Belmont. First and foremost, despite (or maybe because of) getting a good Beyer and gamely turning back a colt who ran the race of his life, I had the strong sense that by the end of the Preakness, California Chrome had emptied his tank. That doesn’t mean he can’t or won’t rebound in the three weeks between the Preakness and Belmont. But I thought California Chrome had something left in the tank at the end of the Derby, and I did not feel that way at the end of the Preakness.
Then, there is the matter of the Belmont’s 12-furlong distance. I understand that it is in California Chrome’s favor that he is the kind of horse who can rate and rate, and then suddenly put distance between himself and everyone else with a burst of speed in upper stretch. Still, I have real doubts as to whether California Chrome wants any part of 12 furlongs. Okay, you can say that about almost every American dirt horse today. But I think California Chrome is, at heart, an 8 1/2- to 9-furlong horse.
Finally, the “new” horses pointing to the Belmont are much better than the “new” faces we saw in the Preakness. I thought from the moment the Derby was over that Wicked Strong would be a handful in the Belmont. I still do.
A couple of other quick Preakness thoughts:
Ride On Curlin can be a major player in the Belmont, too.
What was it about Social Inclusion’s performance in the Preakness (a tired third, beaten eight lengths) that encourages his connections to go on to the Belmont? If he was only given the chance to develop at his own pace – doesn’t he fact that he was very rattled before the start of the Preakness and Wood Memorial say he’s not ready for this yet? – Social Inclusion could become a good horse. Now, who knows?
Poor Ria Antonia. Not only was she brutally overmatched in the Preakness, she then ran off early to contest the pace when the whole “point” of her being in the race was for her to close and maybe pick up some pieces. Yeesh.
Other Preakness weekend notes:
Untapable, who is currently the best 3-year-old filly by a margin so large it’s difficult to quantify, can’t be everywhere, and in every race. So when she isn’t there, it creates opportunities for lesser lights to have their day. That was the story of the Black Eyed Susan. Stopchargingmaria was determined in victory and was winning her third graded race from only eight starts. But even when Untapable isn’t there, she still is, in a way. Untapable’s absence Friday only underscored how limited Stopchargingmaria really is. I mean, horses are supposed to improve as they mature, but Stopchargingmaria hasn’t progressed Beyer-wise at all from the start of her career last summer. The 85 Beyer she got for the Black Eyed Susan, her best of the year so far, matched the Beyer she got in her debut win at Saratoga.
Fans dig deep closers, and in that regard, Revolutionary is a crowd pleaser. And thanks to a fantastic setup, Revolutionary made a few more fans with his rally from another county to win the Pimlico Special. But as much as folks might like his style, we need a little perspective here. On Friday, Revolutionary only won narrowly from Prayer for Relief. Prayer for Relief has been a terrific earner. He has now banked almost $1.7 million, which is testament to what a decent horse can do in today’s game. I’d love to own him. But Prayer for Relief has never, ever, been even remotely confused with a leading divisional member. And Revolutionary, great setup and all, only beat him by a neck.
What else can you say about Ben’s Cat? Friday’s McKay sprint was his 26th win from 39 career starts. Ben’s Cat isn’t a great horse. But he is great at what he does.
It appears that the call from Pimlico management two days before the Preakness to put about a month between the Triple Crown races has fallen flat with the general public. Thankfully. Racing fans understand that sweeping the Triple Crown is supposed to be extremely difficult, and actually prefer it that way. It was heartening to see a general rejection of the concept of “dumbing down” the Triple Crown by extending the time between races, which would certainly lessen the degree of difficulty for a sweep. Racing people know there are some racing traditions you can tinker with, and others you should never mess with. The Triple Crown falls in the latter category.
Clearly, a significant factor in Pimlico’s call – a point confirmed in Maryland Jockey Club President and COO Tom Chukas Jr.’s meeting with the media Saturday afternoon – is the track’s concern that its supporting stakes on Preakness weekend are not attracting horses the way Pimlico management believes they should be.
There is reason for that, and it is only partly due to the two-week turnaround between Kentucky Derby weekend and Preakness weekend. In almost every instance, the supporting stakes at Pimlico on Preakness weekend virtually mirror Churchill’s supporting Derby stakes. And in almost every instance, the races at Pimlico are not as lucrative, nor as highly ranked, as their counterparts at Churchill. For example:
Churchill has the Kentucky Oaks, a Grade 1, $1 million race at nine furlongs for 3-year-old fillies. Pimlico has the Black Eyed Susan, a Grade 2, $500,000 race at nine furlongs for 3-year-old fillies.
Churchill has the Woodford Reserve Turf Classic, a Grade 1, $500,000 race at nine furlongs for male turf horses. Pimlico has the Dixie, a Grade 2, $400,000 race 8.5 furlongs for male turf horses.
Churchill has the Churchill Downs Stakes, a Grade 2, $400,000 race at seven furlongs for male sprinters. Pimlico has the Maryland Sprint, a Grade 3, $150,000 race at six furlongs for male sprinters.
Churchill has the Humana Distaff, a Grade 1, $300,000 race at seven furlongs for female sprinters. Pimlico has the Skipat Stakes, an ungraded, $100,000 race at six furlongs for female sprinters.
Churchill has the American Turf, a Grade 2, $250,000 race at 8.5 furlongs for 3-year-old make turfers. Pimlico has the James Murphy, an ungraded, $100,000 race at 8 furlongs for 3-year-old male turfers.
Churchill has the Eight Belles Stakes, a Grade 3, $175,000 race at seven furlongs for 3-year-old filly sprinters. Pimlico has the Miss Preakness, an ungraded, $100,000 race at six furlongs for 3-year-old filly sprinters.
I could go on – Churchill’s Twin Spires Turf Sprint is greater than Pimlico’s Jim McKay Turf Sprint, Churchill’s Edgewood is greater than Pimlico’s Hilltop – but the point is clear. Pimlico’s supporting stakes just aren’t as good, or as attractive to any rational horseman. Until Pimlico throws a ton of money into its supporting Preakness weekend stakes, which in time might attract better fields and result in higher rankings from the North American Graded Stakes Committee, it can’t blame a short turnaround for why their stakes aren’t attracting fields of comparable quality to their counterparts at Churchill.
Instead of monkeying with the Triple Crown in the hopes of also improving its supporting stakes program, perhaps Pimlico management should get a little creative, and really make an effort to distinguish its Preakness weekend supporting stakes. I’ll toss out a couple of suggestions below. I’m not saying that these are the right solutions, or the only ones, but they could give Pimlico a chance to improve their otherwise mundane Preakness weekend stakes schedule:
Cut the Dixie back to a mile and promote it as the East’s premier early spring objective for turf milers.
Between the Kentucky Oaks on the front end, and the Acorn and Mother Goose on the back end, the Black Eyed Susan is lost. Move it to the turf, make it the biggest spring destination for 3-year-old filly turfers, which in turn would make it a natural prelude to the new and very rich Belmont Oaks.
Consolidate the Maryland Sprint and Jim McKay, run it as a turf sprint, give it a little extra cash, and it could become the East’s top early season grass sprint.
And finally, really commit to the Pimlico Special. Axe a couple of the extraneous hundred grand stakes (does anyone really need the Skipat and the Sir Barton?), and make the Pimlico Special at least a $500,000 race that horsemen can bank on being run every year.
Cal Chrome did not empty the tank, he worked harder than he did in the Derby but he was not all out.
Mike... just checking in for your thoughts on Tonalist. He looked like a beast winning the Peter Pan. Do you think this horse can improve off of that effort, or; do you think he was aided by the track being sealed/sloppy? I know that he is the only other 3 year old that looks like he could run all day and CC will have his "gut checked" when the Belmont is over. If Tonalist can improve, we will not see a 3C winner. I know the Blue Bloods (breeders) are hoping for a KY bred to knock this Cal bred back to his CA zip code and Tonalist is the only one I can see doing this. I think we will see both horses "on their bellies" in the Belmont and pray that I see a Triple Crown winner in my life time. I was alive (born in '57 and was only 16-20 years old then) but didn't know about racing when Affirmed and Secretariat won their 3C's. This is going to be great for racing either way.
Mike I won't sit on the fence. I disagree with your 2 main points. 1) chrome did not empty his tank and the gallop out demonstrates that ROC was never going by. I am not a true blue believer in gallop outs either. Victor had to press him more than the Derby but with my eye he was still not all out and I watched the replay several times on a large HD set. I was also there in person and had the amazing experience of visiting Chrome in the barn when he got back from the test barn. I did not se you there. On the walk back he had great energy.....head up not down. And they walked him along the shed row for at least another half hour/hour. I actually got to give his head a few pats as he paused for some water. His personality is second to none....a cool customer which will serve him well going 12. In terms of spreading out the triple crown - your position about tradition is a fallacy. Look how many times these races have changed In distance and dates. You sound like someone who just wants to protect belmont in that they now get the churchill runners back in 5 weeks. Allowing more time will benefit all...particularly us bettors who would see big fields and horses going against each other in a series of 3 races.
Mike Watchmaker, I do not necessarily disagree with your analysis, but I wonder why you think California Chrome emptied his tank holding off Ride On Culrin, but do not mention that Ride On Curlin may have emptied his tank chasing Chrome? My handicapping experience shows me that the one chasing actually expends more energy than the one holding off.
Totally agree on Watchmaker's point that the answer to Pimlico's undercard isn't spacing out the TC but rather sweetening the pots. Take a page from NYRA and their new 8 million dollar day. Raise the purses on the undercard (even if it means nixing a couple minor stakes) and most importantly - raise the Preakness to a 3 - 5 million dollar purse. Believe me - for that kind of cash - the Derby also rans would come.
Matt below said that CC never looked tired. He doesn't need the nasal strip he has the X factor gene for 'the big heart" gene. Its carried through the female line who can pass to filly or colt, but sires can only pass to daughters. His dam's line is packed with it. Plate her hooves in 24 kt. It is coming along the straight female line and also through her sire line. Google and read The X Factor by Marianne Haun. Just click on her dam or sire and look and follow the lines--Look for War Admiral passing it to daughters who can pass to colts or fillies. Look for Mahmoud, Blue Larkspur, and loaded with Princequillo. These sires only pass to daughters--Princequillo passed to Somethingroyal, Sir Gaylord's and Secretariat's dam. After death at his autopsy, Secretariat's heart weighted approx. 22 lbs. compared to normal wt. of 8.5 lbs. X factor big heart produces normal heart function. No wonder CC wasn't breathing hard. It all depends on the ride Espinoza gives him and staying healthy in other ways. Lucky Pulpit shows inherited tendency of X factor, too, but he only passes the Y chromosome to CC. The 2 fillies the owners have from the same breeding could give them both XX for big heart on from both dam and sire. Scientific studies have certified its existence and considered 100% reliable based on non-invasive imaging.
Matt below said that CC never looked tired. He doesn't need the nasal strip he has the X factor gene for 'the big heart" gene. Its carried through the female line who can pass to filly or colt, but sires can only pass to daughters. His dam's line is packed with it. Plate her hooves in 24 kt. It is coming along the straight female line and also through her sire line. Google and read The X Factor by Marianne Haun. Just click on her dam or sire and look and follow the lines--Look for War Admiral passing it to daughters who can pass to colts or fillies. Look for Mahmoud, Blue Larkspur, and loaded with Princequillo. These sires only pass to daughters--Princequillo passed to Somethingroyal, Sir Gaylord's and Secretariat's dam. After death at his autopsy, Secretariat's heart weighted approx. 22 lbs. compared to normal wt. of 8.5 lbs. X factor big heart produces normal heart function. No wonder his finish at Belmont. No wonder CC wasn't breathing hard. It all depends on the ride Espinoza gives him and staying healthy in other ways. CC is the classical distance horse that will be a valuable sire of future dams. Lucky Pulpit shows inherited tendency of X factor, too, but he only passes the Y chromosome to CC. The 2 fillies the owners have from the same breeding could give them both XX for big heart on from both dam and sire. Scientific studies have certified its existence and considered 100% reliable based on non-invasive imaging. Secretariat's daughter's--Secretame, Betty's Secret, Weekend Surprise, and Terlingua look for their fillies and colts wins.
What Chuckas needs to do is realize you can't upset the US sports calendar that is full and would create more problems than it would solve. The one thing that Chuckas SHOULD do is look to lengthen the Dixie to 1 1/2 Miles (its former distance) and work a deal with NYRA to move the Man o'War off the preceding weekend (possibly moving The Man o'War back to its old spot in early September, three weeks after the Arlington Million and Sword Dancer). What Chuckas should do instead is work with NYRA and Churchill on re-instituting a bonus system that was in place in the late 1980s and early '90s, In this case, I would cut the purse for each actual leg to $1 Million and put $4 million total into a bonus pool exclusively for horses who race in all three legs (though horses who are excluded from running in the Derby due to overflow would be treated as having started in the Derby for this purpose). Points could be awarded as follows: 1st: 30 points 2nd: 20 points 3rd: 10 points 4th: 5 points 5th: 4 points 6th: 3 points 7th: 2 points 8th: 1 point The bonus pool could then be paid out after the Belmont Stakes as follows: 1st: $2.5 Million, but quadrupled to $10 million if a horse wins the Triple Crown. A Triple Crown winner would then be subject to additional bonuses of an additional $5 million for winning EITHER the Breeders' Cup Turf or Classic at three AND THEN for staying around a chance at another $10 million for winning the BC Turf or Classic at four, with that bonus in effect in every subsequent year after that. The Top points earner (if not a Triple Crown winner) would get $5 Million in each subsequent year after age three for winning the BC Turf or Classic. 2nd: $1 Million PLUS additional bonuses of $3 Million for winning EITHER the BC Turf or Classic at three and in each subsequent year after that. 3rd: $250,000 PLUS additional bonuses of $2 Million for winning EITHER the BC Turf or Classic at three and in each subsequent year after that. 4th: $150,000 PLUS additional bonuses of $1 Million for winning EITHER the BC Turf or Classic at three and in each subsequent year after that. 5th: $100,000 PLUS additional bonuses of $500,000 for winning EITHER the BC Turf or Classic at three and in each subsequent year after that. THIS is the way this problem is fixed, NOT by moving the dates back. If anything, if I were running Churchill, I would be pushing tracks to go the other way and bunch their preps closer together with bonus points in the Derby points system to horses who would race in ALL FOUR designated rounds of preps and further bonus points for racing in designated rounds at two and DOUBLE all points for the BC Juvenile winner. The idea would be to have more horses like California Chrome, who had 10 starts before the Derby and had a sound bottom underneath that many horses do not have going into the Derby because of too much "babying" of top horses. Oh, and the three horses from the Derby who did race in the Preakness finished 1-2-4, with the third finisher a horse who would have run two weeks earlier at Gulfstream had he not had a bruised hoof.
I like California Chrome's chances at the Belmont. I too worry about how much the Preakness might have taken out of him, but his style will suit him well for the Belmont. In the last couple of years, the field has staggered home in around 2:30, with very few horses passing anyone in the last quarter mile. If that happens again, Chrome should be right there at the end. Since his winning streak, Chrome has never looked tired, to my eyes. The Belmont should do it to him, but if they run a :27 final quarter, I can't see anyone getting in his way.
Cc's connections need to claim that they'll have chrome forwardly placed in the Belmont, only to keep the competitors guessing. Then what they/Victor really needs to do come race time is rate him mid pack to conserve energy and use his typical stretch burst to win. Stir it up connections, bluff them!