05/12/2014 1:48PM

Beyer: Racing suffers from the myth of the short layoff

Barbara D. Livingston
Smarty Jones came back two weeks after his Derby win and took the 2004 Preakness Stakes (pictured) by 11 1/2 lengths.

The filly who could have won the Preakness won’t be in Baltimore on Saturday.

Untapable captured the Kentucky Oaks in sensational fashion, a performance significantly faster than California Chrome’s Kentucky Derby victory the next day. But trainer Steve Asmussen and owner Ron Winchell decided almost immediately against challenging males in the Preakness. “It is not in her interests to run back in two weeks,” the trainer said.

Asmussen, who won the Preakness with Rachel Alexandra under similar circumstance in 2009, presumably knows what’s best for his filly. But his reluctance to run a top horse in the Preakness after a two-week rest is part of a trend in the sport. Only three of the Derby’s 19 starters will be in the Preakness field. The horses who finished 2-3-4-5-6 will not challenge California Chrome.

::DRF Live: Reports from training hours at Pimlico 8-9 a.m. ET this week

Asmussen’s decision is as disappointing as the one made last year by Chad Brown, trainer of Normandy Invasion, who was almost every wise-guy handicapper’s pick to win the Preakness. The colt had made a bold premature move into the teeth of a fast pace before weakening to finish fourth in the Derby. Brown and owner Rick Porter hemmed and hawed about the Preakness before deciding not to run. “Coming back in two weeks would be a mistake long term,” Porter said. The decision was subject to even more second-guessing when Oxbow, who had finished six lengths behind Normandy Invasion in the Derby, won at Pimlico.

The belief that horses need lengthy rest between races has become part of the orthodoxy of the sport. It’s a radical change from the past. In the 1950s and ’60s, good horses often raced with a week’s rest (or less) between races. Now 3-year-olds get their final prep race three, four, or five weeks before the Derby, and so the 14-day layoff before the Preakness looks like a daunting challenge.

Why do modern-day Thoroughbreds need such gentle handling? The change in training philosophy may have occurred because horses are less robust than their forebears. It may have to do with the almost-universal use of Lasix; the diuretic causes horses to lose significant weight, and they need time to recover from a race. Many leading trainers are believers in the Ragozin Sheets and the Thoro-Graph Speed Figures, both of which espouse the philosophy that horses will “bounce” – i.e., run an inferior race – if they run back too quickly from a peak effort. Five-time Preakness-winning trainer Bob Baffert believes that the Derby’s now-common fields of 20 runners put so much stress on runners that they need more time to recover than the Preakness allows.

Art Sherman, the 77-year-old trainer of California Chrome, remembers how the game used to be played. As a youngster, he was the exercise rider for the great racehorse Swaps, who in 1956 set a world record for 1 1/16 miles, then made three more starts in the next month, winning them all and setting another world record. Swaps didn’t need much long rest between races and he never bounced. Yet Sherman, too, has embraced the modern thinking. He now says, “I never run a horse back in two weeks even when I’m running cheap claimers. … I’m a guy who likes to go seven to eight weeks between races.”

::DRF Live: Reporting and insight from the Preakness draw 6-7 p.m. ET on Wednesday

Because the trainer of a Derby winner will almost always take a shot at the Triple Crown, the Preakness is one of the few races in which top horses will run with two weeks’ rest. The results at Pimlico contradict the belief that this short layoff is too difficult for the horses.

Kentucky Derby winners regularly come back to deliver smashing performances in Baltimore: Funny Cide (2003) won the Preakness by nearly 10 lengths, Smarty Jones (2004) won by 11 1/2, Big Brown (2008) by 5 1/4. In 2012, I’ll Have Another and Bodemeister finished 1-2 in the Derby, then ran much faster in the Preakness and finished 1-2 again. None of them bounced. When Derby winners have flopped in Baltimore – such as Orb in 2013 and Super Saver in 2010 – the explanation may be that they benefited from perfect trips at Churchill and didn’t get such an easy setup at Pimlico.

Despite such evidence, trainers remain fearful of the 14-day layoff, and the Preakness has suffered as a result. Some of the greatest races of all time have been rematches between the 1-2 finishers in the Derby: Affirmed vs. Alydar (1978), Alysheba vs. Bet Twice (1987), Sunday Silence vs. Easy Goer (1989). But now, more often than not, well-regarded losers don’t come back for a rematch. “The last two years have very definitely been a struggle for us,” said Tom Chuckas, president of the Maryland Jockey Club.

The conservative management of top horses not only hurts a sport that need its stars to race against each other; it can hurt the trainers and owners who think they’re being prudent by not competing.

::DRF Live: Reporting and insight from the Preakness draw 6-7 p.m. ET on Wednesday

When he opted to skip the Preakness last year with Normandy Invasion, Porter said, “Our goal is to have a fresh horse” for races at Saratoga in August. But after passing up a golden chance to win a Triple Crown race, Normandy Invasion developed a foot abscess that prevented him from running at Saratoga; he was out of action for the remainder of his 3-year-old year.

Perhaps skipping the Preakness will work to the long-term advantage of Untapable and the Derby runners who are absent from Baltimore. But patience and prudence are not necessarily rewarded in racing, as the example of Normandy Invasion demonstrated. Sometimes the wisest strategy is to strike when the iron is hot.

William Tichy More than 1 year ago
Ed More than 1 year ago
He will not win.
Stephen Pfaffenbach More than 1 year ago
Its. our not are
Tom More than 1 year ago
In Australia G1 horses will run in a long G1 stake against 15 or so others then turn around and run in another similar race a few days or a week later. It is common, not the exception. What are they doing right that we are not here? One obvious reason might be they do not allow drugs the way we do in the States.
TEDK215 More than 1 year ago
Art Sherman......."I never run a horse back in two weeks even when Im running cheap claimers." well Art, I guess money changes everything doesn't it? maybe the old timer knows this horse will win with ease.
Nick Kenyon More than 1 year ago
just admit it your afraid of chrome,so when you all come back in 3 weeks what will your excuse be then,we will see who shows up for the belmont you will have no excuse then.
Dave Piscopo More than 1 year ago
Could not agree more! At the end of the day it's the fans who lose out again. I guess the owners r hoping that CC bombs Preakness and they will have a chance at Belmont. Good Luck!
StockPicker More than 1 year ago
Andy please excuse me but what is the point you are trying to make? Perhaps you should write about this wonderful story of a state bred horse from California who has a chance to do something no other horse, and there have been some real good ones, has done in the last 36 years. Instead you write this piece which has zero relevance. If Wicked Strong won the KD you would be all over how they renamed the horse and various other things. This goes to show that you are completely out of touch. It's time Andrew to move in.
Jeff More than 1 year ago
I might be mistaken (and I'm sure someone will correct me if I'm wrong), didn't Conquistador Cielo win the Metropolitan Mile in 1:33something and then route the Belmont field five or six days later?
[removed] More than 1 year ago
This comment has been deleted
Andy Muhlada More than 1 year ago
Did you know that all three crowns were run in the same week back in the day? Racing, like all other pro sports is evolving. Or as your stock bocker tells you "past results do not guarantee future returns".
Daniel Alvarado More than 1 year ago
Beyer still taking cheap shots at CC...sour about not picking him in the Derby...LMAO!
Brad Keller More than 1 year ago
I was looking at Phar Lap's races last week and saw how many times he ran after 3 days rest and won!
M. Ryan More than 1 year ago
I agree. She would win. I understand not running her. Could you imagine what would happen to Asmussen if she broke down on short rest. He'd lose what's left of his stable. Don't fault him for being conservative.
alexchatman1 More than 1 year ago
I think Andrew needs to lock himself in a room, with a bottle of jack Daniels, sheets of butcher paper, a few dozen sharp pencils, and recalculate the fig for the Derby!
Dan Passero More than 1 year ago
He is a dope. But you can't argue with the numbers. It was horribly slow!!!!!!!!
martymar . More than 1 year ago
you can't argue with numbers except when it's beyer speed rating when it's very subjective. Orb - Derby win - 104 - Final Time: 2:02.89 California Chrome - 91/97 - Final Time: 2:03.66 He gave it a 91 now in Comparison Flat Out - 2013 Westchester win - 115 - Final Time: 1:32.99 Palace Malice - 2014 Westchester win - 111 - Final Time: 1:35.53 I Guess Beyer speed rating is determined by throwing darts on the board and used that number.
Chad mc rory More than 1 year ago
Add 7 to 9 points if the horse came from a fave barn...
Chad mc rory More than 1 year ago
They don't allow him sharp objects.