05/08/2014 3:11PM

History says slow Derby time means little going forward

John Bambury
California Chrome's time of 2:03.66 was the slowest for a fast-track Kentucky Derby winner since Cannonade's 2:04 in 1974.

Daily Racing Form ’s publisher emeritus, Steven Crist, worked for years as a turf writer at The New York Times, and the fact that Crist handicapped and bet added welcome doses of data and analysis to typical newspaper story lines. Here’s a paragraph from a Kentucky Derby recap:

“The final time of 2:05, and the slow final quarter-mile in 27 1/5, had students of time dumbfounded,” Crist wrote. “The Churchill Downs track, listed as ‘muddy’ but virtually dry by post time, was producing times only a tad slower than usual throughout the afternoon. The Derby figured to be run in about 2:02 or 2:03, not 2:05.”

The year was 1989. The one-two Derby finishers had participated in the slowest Kentucky Derby since 1958. Their names were Sunday Silence and Easy Goer, two of the great Triple Crown standouts of the modern era. The slow Derby time, in the end, meant nothing.

Crist might as well have been writing about California Chrome’s victory in the 140th Kentucky Derby.

California Chrome’s winning time of 2:03.66, like Sunday Silence’s 2:05, was historically slow, the slowest fast-track Derby since Cannonade’s 2:04 in 1974. And, like Crist wrote 25 years ago, the winning times of earlier (and later) races on last Saturday’s card anticipated a Derby that ought to have been run much faster. It’s possible that weather conditions conspired to tamp down the Derby time, as some observers have suggested, but even if California Chrome really did run slowly, it could have little relation to his inherent quality – or his chance to win the Preakness Stakes on May 17 at Pimlico.

California Chrome’s slow winning time has produced speed figures that also are historically low. Andrew Beyer, who makes Beyer Speed Figures, gave the Derby win an initial figure of 91 but revised the number to 97 because of the raw figure’s implausibility, he said. Even the 97 is the lowest number for a Derby winner since Beyer began publishing his figures in DRF in 1992, and this Derby also was the slowest on the Ragozin speed figures.

The case for the Derby being slow seemed straightforward. Crist notes that the track on which Sunday Silence raced was drying out and nearly fast, which hints at a dynamic and potentially variable surface. Beyer said in an e-mail that speed figures on Derby Day 2013, when Orb got a 104 Beyer for winning in 2:02.89, were “all over the place.” In 2010 and 2011, the track appeared to slow, and surfaces that significantly change during a card add another layer of complexity to making figures. But 2014 wasn’t that kind of year. The surface was rated fast and played fast Friday and throughout Saturday, with the only exception the Derby itself.

There was one thing different about the Derby: It was run one hour and 45 minutes after the previous race, the Woodford Reserve Turf Classic, and more than two hours and 40 minutes after the previous dirt race, the Churchill Downs Stakes, a seven-furlong race won in a quick 1:21.15. The high temperature Saturday in Louisville was 73 degrees, average for the date, but the humidity was unusually low, and the wind was strong, blowing steadily at about 15 miles per hour, with gusts up to 29 at nearby Louisville International Airport.

“There was no humidity all weekend, and that’s real unusual for us when it gets warm here,” said David Lehr, in his second year as Churchill’s track-maintenance supervisor after more than 20 years as an assistant.

Warm, dry air and wind will pull moisture out of a surface, making a track looser and more tiring. It’s possible that the extended break before the Derby led to such conditions, and to California Chrome’s slow time, but Lehr doesn’t think so.

“That’s not the case,” Lehr said. “Everything was working well for us. The moisture was good. We were pouring water to it all day long.”

Lehr said that because of weather conditions, he watered more than during a typical card. Without attention to the circumstances, the track “could dry out really fast.” When a turf race came up, the track crew watered the main track before the race and after, Lehr said. The main track got a final watering before it was harrowed after the Kentucky Derby starters walked from the stable area to the saddling area, according to Lehr.

“The Derby, I can’t explain it,” Lehr said. “I watched it one time again afterward, and it just seemed like they all were waiting for someone else to go. The fractions were slow, and they all were just kind of laying back there.”

Indeed, the Derby was run in surprisingly passive fashion: Consider that the race’s third quarter-mile, run down the backstretch straightaway with a strong tail-wind, went in a moderate 24.43 seconds. But also remember that Sunday Silence’s final Derby quarter was more than 27 seconds, and that he won the Preakness and the Breeders’ Cup Classic later that year.In fact, four of the slowest Derby winners in recent history have come back to win the Preakness, while two others were second and two more third. Super Saver’s eighth-place Preakness finish in 2010, Strike the Gold’s sixth in 1991, and Lil E. Tee’s fifth in 1992 all came after slow Derbies. Strike the Gold won before Beyers were published, but Super Saver and Lil E. Tee both earned figures that fit into historical norms.


Even Giacamo, whose slowish 2:02.75 produced only a 100 Beyer, and who won the Derby at odds of 50-1, returned to finish third in the Preakness. Meanwhile, Monarchos, the only horse besides Secretariat to run a Derby under 2:00, finished sixth in the 2001 Preakness after earning a 116 Beyer in the Derby.

California Chrome might leave Baltimore with another slow time and another low speed figure. And if he is less slow than the others in this crop, it won’t really matter. Racing history prizes what is won, not how long it took to win it.

Slowest Kentucky Derby winning times in last 30 years

Horse (Year)
Track Condition - Time - Margin - Beyer
Sunday Silence (1989) Muddy - 2:05 - 2 1/2 - N/A 3-1 1st
Super Saver (2010) Sloppy - 2:04.45 - 2 1/2 - 104 8-1 8th
Smarty Jones (2004) Sloppy - 2:04.06 - 2 3/4 - 107 4-1 1st
Cannonade (1974) Fast - 2:04 - 2 1/4 - N/A 3-2 3rd
Go For Gin (1994) Sloppy - 2:03.72 - 2 - 112 9-1 2nd
California Chrome (2014) Fast - 2:03.66 - 1 3/4 - 97 5-2 N/A
Alysheba (1987) Fast - 2:03.08 - 1 3/4 - N/A 8-1 1st
Charismatic (1999) Fast - 2:03.29 - Neck - 108 31-1 1st
Strike the Gold (1991) Fast - 2:03.08 - 1 3/4 - N/A 9-2 6th
Lil E Tee (1992) Fast - 2:03.04 - 1 - 107 16-1 5th
Ferdinand (1986) Fast - 2:02.80 - 2 1/4 - N/A 17-1 2nd
Giacomo (2005) Fast - 2:02.75 - 1/2 - 100 50-1 3rd