04/14/2016 11:30AM

Crist: Three-year-old crop has case of the slows

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A year ago, the field for the Kentucky Derby shaped up as one of the best and deepest in many years. The five favorites were 13 for 13 as 3-year-olds, and all five Grade 1 preps were won by daylight in strong performances. Eight entrants had run Beyer Speed Figures of 100 or more.

This year, the story is entirely different.

The Florida Derby, won last year by Materiality with a 110 Beyer, went to Nyquist with a winning figure of just 94. The Wood Memorial, won last year by Frosted with a 103, was won by Outwork with a Beyer of 93. Brody’s Cause took the Blue Grass Stakes with a 91, four points lower than Carpe Diem’s winning figure a year earlier. While Exaggerator’s 103 in the Santa Anita Derby cracked the triple-digit mark, it’s still the lowest in that race in the last four years.

The five Grade 1 preps last year, including American Pharoah’s 105 in the Arkansas Derby, had an average winning Beyer of 103.8. The four run so far this year have averaged 95.2. It would take an unprecedented winning figure of 140 in Saturday’s Arkansas Derby to pull the group up to last year’s level.

Widening the scope of comparison from two years to a decade is not much more flattering to the Class of 2016. Nyquist’s winning figure ranks ninth among the last 10 Florida Derbies, which is exactly where Brody’s Cause’s Blue Grass and Outwork’s Wood stack up. Nor does looking beyond the five Grade 1s show greater depth in lesser events. The Grade 2 Fountain of Youth, San Felipe, Louisiana Derby, and Gotham all earned significantly better figures a year ago than this year.

While it is clear that this year’s Derby preps have been unusually slow, it is, of course, too early to dismiss the crop or to preclude the emergence of some quick ones. It’s only April. An optimist would say that the preps have been so weak that maybe the crop is just a month behind schedule and someone is bound to jump up with a fast winning race in Louisville.

An optimistic horseplayer (and aren’t we all?) might say that the slow figures add up to a golden wagering opportunity in this year’s Derby to play against the favorites. In day-to-day racing, when the favorites consistently run better than par for the conditions of a race, one of them is the likely winner. When an entire field is literally subpar, that is often the time to bet on chaos.

Nyquist is the crux of the issue. If we didn’t bother to time races, he would look like an unbeatable superstar on paper: He is 8 for 8, the reigning 2-year-old male champion, with four Grade 1 victories over three different tracks. In last year’s Breeders’ Cup Juvenile, he manhandled Brody’s Cause and Exaggerator, who ran third and fourth that day and have returned this year to post respective Grade 1 victories in the Blue Grass and Santa Anita Derby.

On the other hand, his winning Beyer of 89 in that Breeders’ Cup Juvenile was the third-lowest in the last 25 years (ahead of only New Year’s Day and Shanghai Bobby). Now he will try to become the third straight favorite to win the roses. The last two, however, were California Chrome, coming off a 107 in the Santa Anita Derby, and American Pharoah, with a last-out 105 in the Arkansas Derby. It turned out to be folly to try to beat either one of them. It could be very different this year with Nyquist coming into the race off that mere 94 at Gulfstream, where he had a perfect trip on the lead while only briefly pressured by a 124-1 shot. His principal opponent, Mohaymen, barely showed up.

A month ago, people were concerned that Mohaymen had run three straight Beyers of 95, suggesting that he hadn’t improved off his form as a 2-year-old and might not be fast enough to win the Derby. Now, given that a figure of 95 would have won the Florida Derby, Blue Grass, or Wood, he’s the kind of horse who may rate a second look in this unusually slow season.