The Kentucky Derby Crawl

Handicapper Art ParkerBy Art Parker

I couldn’t help but notice the slow running time of this year’s Kentucky Derby. A reason for the slow time was not immediately apparent so I decided to review the charts of all races at Churchill that day. And, since the 2015 Derby was raced over a fast track, I decided to review the last ten Derbies raced over a Churchill track labeled fast.

The last ten Kentucky Derbies over a fast track begin in 2002 with War Emblem. The 2004 Derby (Smarty Jones), the 2009 Derby (Super Saver) and the 2010 Derby (Orb), were all contested over a sloppy track according to the charts and eliminated from my review.

According to the official Kentucky Derby charts, the two slowest races of the last ten over a fast track were the last two Derbies, 2014 and 2015. The slowest of all was California Chrome’s effort in 2014 which stopped the clock at 2:03.66. The time of American Pharoah’s effort on May 2 of this year was 2:03.02.

I do find it puzzling why the supposed best three year old in America and the Derby favorite must be exposed to such excessive encouragement when he had been cruising so easy for eight of the ten furlongs.

The fastest two races over the last ten fast track Derbies belong to the oldest races reviewed; 2002 (War Emblem) at 2:01.13 and 2003 (Funny Cide) at 2:01.19.

When calculating the final quarter mile of the 2014 Derby (26.21 seconds) and the 2015 Derby (26.57 seconds) one will not be favorably impressed. The only two final quarters slower than these Derby winners were in 2005 (Giacomo) and 2012 (I’ll Have Another). However, the 2005 and 2012 races were the fastest in terms of early fractions, much faster than others. In fact, the 2005 and 2012 editions were the only Derbies of the last ten on a fast track where the half mile call was less than :46 and the three-quarter call was less than 1:10. This makes it easier to understand why the final quarter in those races was slower.

When reviewing the last two Derbies one will see that American Pharoah and California Chrome ran terribly slow last quarters even though the pace of either race failed to be noteworthy, especially in 2014.

Racing commentators raved about the 2015 Derby field being very deep and the best in a “long time,” and it is hard to argue with that. Of the 19 horses that left the gate in Louisville May 2 there were 13 graded stakes winners and 5 of those had won Grade One races. Also noteworthy is that the top three finishers strolled somewhat leisurely around the track and held the top three positions at the wire, and the result was a very slow Derby.

One could go another step and question how good the field was because the winner, American Pharoah, felt the whip may times. According to the May 7, 2015 Paulick Report, jockey Victor Espinoza was very busy getting the winner to the wire…“The three-time Kentucky Derby-winning jockey admitted that he had to ride American Pharoah “harder than ever” during the stretch drive. Espinoza’s tactics have come under scrutiny after Bloomberg.com posted an article not just about American Pharoah’s Derby win, but pointing out that the colt had been “whipped 32 times.”

I’m not going to criticize Espinoza for his actions. I do find it puzzling why the supposed best three year old in America and the Derby favorite must be exposed to such excessive encouragement when he had been cruising so easy for eight of the ten furlongs. Other than the second and third place finishers, the fantastic, deep field offered no challenge at all. And after all of this, the best he could do is a 2:03.02?

I do not know who made the statement, but one commentator (or writer) mentioned the slow time of the Derby and said something like, “well, the track got slower as the day progressed.” I’m sure this may be possible, to a small degree, but not enough to cause a crawl in the Derby. I reviewed all of the charts for the dirt races at Churchill on Derby day. I’m sorry but I’m not buying the idea that the track slowed that much, especially since we had no change in the weather such as the great flood of 1927.

In reviewing the charts, I got the chance to double check a horse I have liked since I first saw him run as a baby. The name is Competitive Edge, who ran and easily won the Pat Day Mile, which was the fifth race at Churchill on Derby Day. I have only bet in the future pools a couple of times. Generally, I am not interested in the early action or Derby craze. But this year I bet a few bucks on two horses: Carpe Diem and Competitive Edge, the latter didn’t run in the Derby and the first, well, was a huge disappointment to me (shows you what little I know about picking winners!).

I watched the replay of Competitive Edge and then reviewed the chart again. My analysis is that the Derby field would have been in trouble had he been in the big dance. The son of Derby winner Super Saver stalked the early leader very closely before taking full command in the stretch to win by nearly five lengths.

Here are the times of the Pat Day Mile: 23.15, 45.86, 1:10.12, 1:21.81 and a final of 1:34.18. The track record for the same distance is 1:33.31. Even though the Pat Day Mile was a “one turn” event…what if Competitive Edge had run the same mile in the Derby? Do you think he could have trudged through a final quarter of 28.83, or better? If so, he wins the Derby. The fastest mile split in the last ten fast track Derbies was when Bodemeister almost outlasted I’ll Have Another in 2012. Bode was on the lead after a mile in 1:35.19. If Competitive Edge had gotten by with a much slower mile, like 1:35.19 (still more than a full second faster than the actual mile split in the 2015 Derby), do you think he could have crawled home in 27.82 or better? If so, he wins the Derby.

My purpose is not to promote Competitive Edge as the next great horse or the winner of the Preakness. I do think that the time of the Derby was so slow that the failure to ask all of the questions that come to mind would be foolish.

Now, let’s go the extra step. As I explained earlier, it isn’t just American Pharoah’s slow time that is in question, but California Chrome’s as well. The question comes to mind is about the quality of breeding in America. And the other question that pops up is the size of the foal crop.

The last issue first. The foal crop has received some attention over the past year. The crop here in America topped 50,000 in 1985 and it has steadily decreased every since. In 2001 the crop was down to 34,000. About half of the record 1985 crop was all that came to life in 2010, the year before California Chrome was foaled and it has dwindled even more since then, all of this due to market conditions (I am told).

This year the Jockey Club has projected a crop of 20,300. That’s a far cry from 50,000. What this means is the probability of a Triple Crown winner based upon the foal crop is twice as likely. The crop was about 25,000 or a little less when Secretariat was foaled (1970), and the great son of Bold Ruler won the Triple Crown in 1973.

The numbers say we should get a Triple Crown winner because the competitive pool is so much smaller. But the final question is the quality of the foal being born in America. Based upon the quality of thoroughbred we produce, we will probably never have another winner of the Triple Crown, and that is probably why we have Kentucky Derby winners that are so slow. That is probably why the fantastic, deep field of 2015 is as slow as Christmas.

Andy Beyer, one of the most recognizable names in racing, addressed the breeding problem last year when discussing California Chrome. In a June 2014 Washington Post article, Beyer stated, “One of the most significant trends in the U.S. thoroughbred industry has been its ever-growing emphasis on speed rather than stamina. Sprinters and milers populate the lists of leading stallions and pass on their traits to future generations. Winners of the Belmont Stakes are often shunned when they go to stud. (For example: Da’ Tara, the winner in 2008, was in such little demand that he was exiled to stud in Venezuela.)”  Beyer went on to explain why the Belmont Stakes races have become slower and slower.

We argue about medication. We argue about what is wrong with racing. We argue about casino gaming and its tie to racing. All of these are good, healthy debates, and we should have them. But we probably need to ask ourselves about the overall quality of our product – the product that is on the track entering the starting gate. We need to ask what the product is doing to our marquee events such as the Kentucky Derby. If we don’t, then one day we will watch the Derby post parade in Louisville and wonder why so many foreign horses are in “our race.”

So, who will win the Preakness? I don’t know. Who will win the Belmont? The one that crosses the line first, and gasping less than the others.

I’m sure some of you will want to know, so here are the “average” Derby times for the last ten contested over a fast track.

¼                 ½                ¾               Mile               Final

22.90          46.68           111.12         1:36.55          202.09

(22.90)       (23.78)         (24.44)         (25.43)          (25.54)