Updated on 09/18/2011 12:48AM

Speed burning out on sluggish track

Invasor (right) and Sun King ran the last furlong in the Whitney in a very fast 12.33 seconds.

SARATOGA SPRINGS, N.Y. - On opening day, the Grade 1-winning sprinter I'm the Tiger made his first start since last fall and clung to a short lead over Spanish Chestnut in a high-end allowance sprint that could have easily passed for a Grade 2 stakes.

After being hounded through torrid fractions of 21.50 and 44.67 seconds, I'm the Tiger edged away from Spanish Chestnut and seemed on his way to a hard-fought victory. But Awesome Twist, who had lagged far behind the enervating battle, came flying up the rail to get up in the final strides.

Visually, it appeared Awesome Twist had put in a magnificent late run, but the race's last two fractions, 1:09.27 and 1:16.89, revealed Awesome Twist's late move was an illusion. Through a last sixteenth in 7.62 seconds, an eternity to figure handicappers, Awesome Twist had decelerated, only at a more gradual rate than the leaders.

The race marked the beginning of a meet-long trend on Saratoga's main track in long sprints and two-turn routes: Horses who run too fast early pay dearly late. On virtually any parallel time chart used by figure handicappers, sprinters normally decelerate roughly 6.40 to 6.60 seconds for each sixteenth of a mile they stretch out, so that six furlongs in 1:10.20 equates to 6 1/2 furlongs in 1:16.60, which equates to about 1:23 at seven furlongs. The deceleration in the Awesome Twist/I'm the Tiger race far exceeded these standards, and these were some of the best sprinters on the circuit. In a $100,000 claiming sprint for 3-year-olds a few days later, Garibaldi, coming off a stakes win at Monmouth, required 7.04 seconds for the last sixteenth.

Note the differences between the last two runnings of several major stakes:

2005 Test - 22.42, 45.46, 1:09.98, 1:22.76
2006 Test - 22.02, 44.67, 1:10.03, 1:24.13

2005 A.G. Vanderbilt - 21.66, 43.85, 1:08.69
2006 A.G. Vanderbilt - 21.90, 45.01, 1:10.21

2005 Jim Dandy - 23.86, 47.38, 1:11.54, 1:36.35, 1:49.50
2006 Jim Dandy - 23.89, 47.36, 1:11.33, 1:37.12, 1:50.50

2005 Whitney - 23.56, 46.41, 1:09.76, 1:34.81, 1:48.33
2006 Whitney - 23.07, 47.21, 1:11.38, 1:36.73, 1:49.06

There is no significant difference in the early fractions - in fact, some of them have been faster this year - but things tend to slow down late. The come-home time in last year's Grade 1 Test was 12.78 seconds, but this year it was 14.10 seconds, the slowest final furlong among the first 18 seven-furlong races at the meet; it explains why Swap Fliparoo was able to rally from 13th to win going away.

According to John Passero, who took over as track superintendent in January 2005, loose cushion depth on the top layer of the surface is now at about 4 1/2 to 4 3/4 inches. "That's probably a little more than last year and quite a bit more than the year before," he said. "I'm not a handicapper, but if you're trying to run '21' and '44' you're going to get tired. Guys here are trying to zing 'em a little bit, and it catches up with you."

Particularly noteworthy is the Whitney comparison. The final time of this year's Whitney was a few lengths slower than the 2005 running, which was wired by Commentator. But Invasor and Sun King hooked up through a last furlong in 12.33 seconds, very fast when compared with last year's 13.52-second finish. That goes a long way toward explaining why Flower Alley, last year's Jim Dandy/Travers winner on a different type of racetrack, came up short off one prep race at Monmouth in the Salvator Mile.

"It's a tiring track," said Todd Pletcher, after watching his 2-year-old filly Octave wear down Magical Ride in Wednesday's Adirondack through a last sixteenth in 7.13 seconds. "From the eighth pole to the wire, you have to be a very fit horse to get there."

While many horsemen have remarked about the demanding nature of the surface, there have been no complaints. A more forgiving racetrack is a safer racetrack.

What's more, it is a great challenge to try to figure out the ever-changing idiosyncrasies of the surface, and how its current demands might affect the chances of two big-time speed horses, Henny Hughes in the King's Bishop and Commentator in the Forego, each of whom has had just one race this year. After a sharp workout by Henny Hughes on Friday, his trainer, Kiaran McLaughlin, said, "There's no settling this horse down," which is a pretty interesting quote, because horses who don't settle down early are having an exceedingly tough time of things at seven-eighths here this summer.

As long as the track stays the way it is, watch for turf-to-dirt horses in the long sprints: Samsincharge ($25.40), Heathrow ($32.60), Knox ($16), D Money ($67), and Rocky Blue ($14.80) all had that angle in common.