Friday, April 14, 2006

The Florida Derby: Totally Irrelevant?

It's Derby season, with the Run for the Roses only 3 weeks away. Leading up to this all spring are a series of prep races, where horses run to see if they are good enough to make it to the Derby itself. Most 3 year olds need to race every 3 or 4 weeks to stay sharp and be in the best condition. Five weeks or more and horses typically do not stay sharp and oftern run poorly, while 2 weeks or less and they are too tired and often run poorly as well. So the biggest and most important prep races take place last weekend (Wood Memorial, Santa Anita Derby, Illinios Derby) and this weekend (Blue Grass Stakes, Arkansas Derby), which are 4 weeks and 3 weeks out from the Derby, respectively.

3 or 4 weeks rest gives the best chance of this

So if you are serious about the Derby then it is important to watch as many prep races as possible in the run up to the first Saturday in May, watching horses to see what they do, how they run, and how they might fare in the Derby when all of the top talent get together in one race. Prep races will have some of the top horses but not all, since they take different paths through different prep races to get there, so it is important to watch all of the major ones to see the potential Derby winners show their stuff (the Derby itself is the best of the best all in the same race).

Historically there have been 4 major 'roads to the derby': New York (Lane's End then Wood Memorial), California (San Felipe, Santa Anita Derby), Florida (Fountain Of Youth then Florida Derby), and Arkansas (Rebel Stakes then Arkansas Derby). Other "sort-of-major" preps are the Louisiana Derby and the Illinois Derby. Many horses will follow one of these regional roads, while others will ship around the country picking the best spots for their horse (opportunities to win based on track, other horses in the field, timing, etc).

That brings me to The Florida Derby, the biggest annual event at Gulfstream Park and its final Derby prep race. Historically this race has taken place on the 2nd Saturday in March and was considered the first of the "major" prep races (the other "majors" being listed above). It was scheduled 8 weeks out, so after the Florida Derby a horse would then race in one of the last set of major prep races in mid-April. In short, it was a big race and a big deal: since 1990, five Derby winners "came out of" the Florida Derby as their penultimate prep race (Unbridled 1990, Strike The Gold 1991, Go For Gin 1995, Thunder Gulch 1996, Monarchos 2001).

Two years ago, Gulfstream Park decided to move the Florida Derby from the 2nd Saturday in March to the 1st Saturday in April (as well as change the distance of the race from a mile and 1/16th to a mile and 1/8th). According to this article the move was done "in an attempt to keep prominent northern horsemen stabled longer at Gulfstream Park after the track extended the length of its winter meet." In other words, for financial reasons. I suppose I can appreciate that as a business they are trying to protect their interests and earn as much as possible, but the sporting result of this in my opinion is that one of the major Derby preps is now damn-near irrelevant.

Florida Derby: Waste Of Time?

Here's why: the 1st Saturday in April is 5 weeks prior to the Derby, so horses running in it are extremely poorly positioned going into the Derby. They either do not race again for the 5 weeks between the two races, or they race 3 weeks after the Florida Derby and 2 weeks prior the the Kentucky Derby in the Lexington Stakes. Either way it is not a good situation. The latter option will burn out a young 3 year old, so running 3 races in 5 weeks is never a good idea. Charismatic pulled this off in 1999, but this is the only instance of this happening in the last 22 years to my knowledge. The five week layoff is even worse: No horse has won the Derby on 5 weeks rest in the last FIFTY YEARS (Needles in 1956). In the last 20 Derbies horses coming off a greater than 4 week layoff are not only 0 for 24, but not a single one of these horses have even hit the board (placed 1st, 2nd, or 3rd).

In the past two years 4 horses have raced in the 'new' Florida Derby with zero success. In 2004, Read The Footnotes and Friends Lake finished 7th and 17th out of 20 , respectively, although neither horse was considered a serious contenter. Last year, both High Fly and Noble Causeway were considered very serious contenders and were bet heavily, with the only question being the 5 week layoff. High Fly finished 10th out of 20 and Noble Causeway finished 14th.

Barbaro: good horse, no chance

This year's Florida Derby field had one really good horse, Barbaro, and a bunch of lesser horses, mainly due to the date (other contenders skipping it). He won and is going to try to buck the odds and go straight to the Derby. So Barbaro overcame the outside post and won, but what did he really prove against this crappy field? The Bandero camp claims that this horse likes 5-6 week layoffs and that is why they ran here, but I think they saw an easy chance to grab the $1 million purse and weren't afraid to severely damage their Derby chances to grab it.

Edgar Prado: find a different Derby mount, dude

So all that explanation to get to my point. Whereas in years past watching the Florida Derby was exciting because it was a super-important Derby prep, this year when I watched it I had the feeling the whole time of "what does this race even matter? On Derby Day I am going to "throw out" any horse coming out of this race because of the 5 week thing." I think this 50 year streak is not an anomaly. Rather, I believe in it strongly, unlike the final pairing wins the Masters thing, which I think is flukey.

So here is what I want to know: are the powers that be at Gulfstream smart for changing the date (alleged financial interests stated above) or are they foolish because they have completely marginalized their once powerful event to be not much more than an insignificant sidenote with regards to the leadup to the Kentucky Derby? Will TV ratings & attendance fall as fields become weaker & weaker, thereby somewhat offsetting whatever financial gain they claim they will get by keeping northeastern trainers stabled there for a few weeks more? And as far as owners are concerned, are we to assume that anyone who runs their horse in this race is more interested in money than the ultimate prize in the sport of kings, that for many only comes once in a lifetime?

Interested to hear your thoughts on this, especially noted horsemen Solon, Brain & The Hit...

Blue Grass Stakes, Arkansas Derby, 5 p.m. EST. ABC


DanB said...

Let me be the first to say that the Fla Derby is still my favorite. It was great seeing them out there and I think that if Barbaro keeps the nose roll and adds blinkers, he will be all set. The rest of the field will eat his dust. Can't get enough of the Fla sun!

Brian said...

Um, Dan um, I'm sorry that you feel this way. That's like saying The Steelers are going to play the AFC championship game with the practice squad players so the starters don't get playoff bonuses for "financial reasons" and then saying "At least we're playing in bad weather Pittsburg." I believe that is irrelevant. As for Kanu, just because I live in the greatest horse racing state in the union, it doesn't mean I'm a great horseman. I may be observant but not a great horseman. I have learned thru my distance running that training is a science. Too much too fast and you crap out. Too long of a layoff, you lose your edge. I think those horses have egos more fragile than a awkward 12 year old boy. Training is a science. A hidden factor, WHO YOU RUN AGAINST AND HOW YOU RUN AGAINST THEM is as important in Derby prep as eating, sleeping and breathing. THE Florida Derby has moved themselves out of the mix. Thanks for being the Arkansas Derby's bitch.

Brain said...

er previous comment left by brain.