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


Kevin Miller More than 1 year ago
Quit making excuses. The races after the Derby were fast. 6F less than 1:10 and a MSW distance race at fractions almost as fast as the Derby.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Did they water the track after the derby? Learn how tracks take care of their surfaces before just comparing times? Seriously...
Kevin Miller More than 1 year ago
They watered between every race and twice before the derby because it was such a long time between those races.
Jack Armstead More than 1 year ago
Marcus - your article is very reassuring to all of us cheering for CC and his chance to improve and become a 3C winner. I believe a 3C winner would provide a boost for the entire industry. If a $2.5K-$3.5K Cal Bred can beat horses that appear to have superior DNA, I would think it would have to be somewhat beneficial for those people who often spend 100 X's this amount in a typical KEESEP2012 sale put on twice a year by the Blue-Blood Breeders. I would have to guess that more money would be attracted to the "Lucky Pulpit" type of smaller syndicates that will now appear. With that happening on one end of the BARMAY12 $3,500 spectrum, there now appears to be more room for the unusually higher priced (I.e. "KEESEP12 $360,000, by Dynaformer) to be discounted to a more manageable $300K price tag? Marcus, please provide your thoughts on the logical process of what I described above, and; if Sunday Silence won the SA Derby, KY Derby, & Preakness (3 Grade 1's in a row before Easy Goer beat him in the Belmont). It is my contention (since CC crossed the finish line in KY) that the old school Blue Bloods will do everything humanly or "humanely" possible to prevent CC from winning more than the $2,374,850 he has already WON. I believe he has a good shot of being in the money in the Preakness and the "Social Inclusion" of the 3rd place finisher from the Wood Memorial is the first actual evidence of a "Wicked Strong" attempt to waylay CA Chrome's chances moving forward. The 4th Place finisher in the KY Derby (by a nose to "Some Ratt" with NY breeding) will certainly hope to draw a better post position and get a better set-up now that they're raised the bar on the type of fractions (I really mean "Beyers") that would require CC to exert himself earlier in the race. Happy Easter to all of you out there and thanks for letting this topic remain FREE.
mikey More than 1 year ago
with premiums being paid to 2 year olds that can do 9 sec a furlong or 20 for a quarter, anybody can now win the 10 f KD. These high $$ sprinters and milers not going to go 10 f and does not matter how superior their DNAs are because they are being filtered for 6 to 8f.
JERRY 2929 More than 1 year ago
Chrome is like Wise Dan finds a way to win???
JERRY 2929 More than 1 year ago
MICHAEL More than 1 year ago
The breeding for sprinters and milers makes speed figs worthless and shouldn't be applied when these horses try to run 10 furlongs or longer..... Speed figs like Beyer is only valid up to 8-8.5f because these is what are being bred.....
j More than 1 year ago
One thousand, two thousand, three thousand...this is 3 seconds. How in hell can you know and say that you are running slow if you are going 3 seconds behind on top of a speeding horse going one mile and a quarter, if you have a strategy of stalking the front runner, than run away in the stretch? Who cares about those 3 seconds other than Beyer? He is the one that keeps his job coming up with a "speed figure" that sells the DRF and no serious horseman cares. Some people talk so much about the KY Derby time, just because they can not see another horse that will pay 5 to 1, than they keep trying putting CC down to justify their discontent with the next payout. If CC pays 4 to 5 it is still a great investment that no stock of bonds will pay you in 2 minutes time.
Kell More than 1 year ago
chrome still has a lot to prove if he wins next saturday then everyone should shut up that will convince me..and it dosen't matter what happens in the belmont if he wins the preakness then he's a top flight horse
edb More than 1 year ago
Derby winner. Enough said.
DRFHersh More than 1 year ago
"Serious horsemen" absolutely care about speed figures. To most, they're just one more tool in the box, but almost all trainers use figures to some extent in this era.
Hail No More than 1 year ago
That might have been true many a moon ago, serious horsemen that I know initially used "figs" as a gauge to know how they needed to improve a horse, especially off a claim, fast forward, and buyers are pretty much irrelevant, as there are NO shortcuts to success...
jttf More than 1 year ago
enjoy your insight. it is too bad that a lot of your work is hidden by the plus.
Kell More than 1 year ago
what most don't get,and understand about "time"..is this,the time vs.engery spent... if chrome was challenged and not given the early part of the race(it was over at the half mile mark people)...then engery spent would have been,,spent.used and not there turning for home..this is what beyer is saying time itself is meaningless as race time but the splits are where time counts.class dismissed!
Corky Pretzels More than 1 year ago
Hersh is the only writer on DRF staff worth a dime. Excellent article, and a wonderful contrast to the sour grapes whiny trash from Beyer earlier this week.
Jack Armstead More than 1 year ago
Corky - this is not true at all. You know this to be true because you keep reading everything that is published in your Racing Form. Now, on this particular topic, Hersh may be right on the money (and I believe it as well), but we all know that it is easier to discuss any topic with the advantage of having hindsight. Happy Easter to you Corky.
Crystal David More than 1 year ago
California Chrome ran only as fast as he needed to to win. Who cares about the time when you have two more races coming up in the next 5 weeks? Why waste your horses energy with that schedule? And for those who are knocking his "slow" time, what does that say about all the rest who couldn't catch him in that SLOW time? Who did you all like that ran even slower than that? LOL LOL LOL
Greg Stevens More than 1 year ago
A horse that won't be 4/5....yea he won the derby of course, but if u make a habit of taking 4/5 on slow horses u will go broke fast... Look at a newcomer that's fresh ...
Rolando More than 1 year ago
I totally agree with you. He was a gift at 5-2 odds. You will never see him higher than even money.
Rolando More than 1 year ago
slow early pace = slow final time.
denali1 More than 1 year ago
Its an interesting Mr.Hersh Sunday Silence has a lot in common with Chrome that being slow derby times(who cares), tactical speed, and no million dollar pedigree. Silence was a great horse ............Chrome could be one as well.
GARY More than 1 year ago
Denali, quit. You are clueless. Silence was by Halo, who produced Devils Bag and Glorious Song and was out of a mare that made 380k back when that was a ton. Chrome is a freak out of junk.
Hail No More than 1 year ago
You'll never win consistently when you call horses, that you wager on, JUNK.