05/14/2017 11:47AM

Watchmaker: Wet track vs. fast track not necessarily a Triple Crown factor

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As of Sunday morning, the extended weather forecast for Baltimore is good – a bit steamy midweek, but good. AccuWeather says the only chance for precipitation there all week is on Friday, when a couple of showers are “possible,” and the National Weather Service has no precipitation at all listed for Baltimore all week.

Both weather services say no rain for Baltimore on Preakness Saturday, with high temperatures cooling to the upper 70s.

So, it appears the Preakness will be run on a fast track, a far cry from the wet conditions that prevailed in Louisville for the Kentucky Derby.

(As an aside, the “official” chart for the Kentucky Derby has the track listed as “wet fast [sealed],” which means that is the designation that will appear in the past performances of all horses coming out of the Derby. I strongly disagree with that track condition designation. I thought the track condition was obviously sloppy/sealed, and I’m going to call it sloppy going forward when I refer to the Derby’s track condition.)

Given the markedly different track conditions expected for the Preakness, does that mean the horses who ran so well in the slop in the Derby are in some way vulnerable because of expected dry conditions at Pimlico? They are not, in fact, at least not if history is any guide.

For almost two decades, Mother Nature smiled on Churchill Downs on Kentucky Derby Day. After Dust Commander won the 1970 Derby on a track labeled “good” (he came back to finish ninth, beaten 9 1/4 lengths, in the Preakness on a fast track), there was a 19-year gap until the next wet-track Kentucky Derby. Since then, seven Derbies were run on wet tracks before Always Dreaming’s score just over a week ago.

Here are those wet-track Derby winners, the official track condition of their Derby, and how they fared in the Preakness, which, by the way, were all run on fast tracks:
- 1989: Sunday Silence; muddy; won the Preakness.
- 1990: Unbridled; good; finished second in the Preakness, beaten 2 1/4 lengths.
- 1994: Go For Gin; sloppy; finished second in the Preakness, beaten three-quarters of a length.
- 2004: Smarty Jones; sloppy; won the Preakness.
- 2009: Mine That Bird; sloppy; finished second in the Preakness, beaten one length.
- 2010: Super Saver; sloppy; finished eighth in the Preakness, beaten 11 3/4 lengths.
- 2013: Orb; sloppy; finished fourth in the Preakness, beaten nine lengths.

Okay, so five of the seven wet-track Derby winners came back to either win or finish second on a fast track in the Preakness. It could well be a coincidence, or maybe it isn’t, but the one recent wet-track Derby winner who fared the worst in the Preakness was Super Saver, the first and only other Derby winner for Todd Pletcher, trainer of Always Dreaming.

That so many recent wet-track Derby winners came back to run well in fast-track Preaknesses suggests a few things. It suggests that horses who win the Derby, even shocking winners like Mine That Bird, are by definition good horses at or near the top of their division, so they’re going to run well in the Preakness simply because they’re better than most, if not all, of their contemporaries.

It also suggests that while there have been some superstar horses who didn’t care for particular footing, in general good horses don’t need to carry their track around with them. And in a greater sense, these results suggest that sharp form carried over a short two-week span and can indeed trump as critical a handicapping component as track condition.

The point here is while you may come up with other reasons to play against the form of the Derby, think twice before playing against wet-track Derby form only because Saturday’s track condition at Pimlico is likely to be fast. Doing that in routine handicapping situations often plays well, but as recent history shows, even in a handicapping context, the Triple Crown is far from routine.

Saturday notes:
** 
Even on the Saturday between the Derby and Preakness, there were some 3-year-old stakes wins worthy of note.
Timeline was impressive again winning the Peter Pan at Belmont, extending his undefeated streak to three, and I love the strategy of him eschewing the Belmont Stakes and targeting the Haskell, with a start in between.

American Anthem, so promising early this year, and so awful in the Rebel and Santa Anita Derby, hit the reset button on his career with a decisive score in the Laz Barrera at Santa Anita. And given how much trainer Bob Baffert appears to love the Haskell, it wouldn’t surprise if American Anthem heads that way, too.

** The star of Saturday was unquestionably Zhukova, the mare who came from Ireland to obliterate males in Belmont’s Man o’ War. Was the group of males Zhukova crushed the best we have to offer? No. Was Zhukova better suited to the bog-like conditions resulting from heavy rain? Undoubtedly. But the turn of foot Zhukova displayed through the stretch was breathtaking – a display of pure class.

** How fast was Zhukova’s turn of foot? It’s anyone’s guess.

The Man o’ War times posted at Belmont and on the official chart included a six-furlong split of 1:24.16, a one-mile fraction of 1:49.69, and a final time for 11 furlongs on the inner turf course of 2:25.31.

Trakus, however, had major differences. Their six-furlong split was 1:22.99, their mile split was 1:48.04, and their final time was 2:23.05, more than two seconds faster.

It’s 2017. It’s absolutely mind-boggling that Thoroughbred racing doesn’t have a timing system that can be trusted. And it’s a huge black eye for the sport that there would be a more than two-seconds difference from the two main timing systems in the final time of a Grade 1 race such as the Man o’ War.