Thursday, December 20, 2012
Trainer Eclipse 2012 a Real Horse Race
SARATOGA SPRINGS, NY, December 20, 2012—Just like my friend, racing, and hoops guru, Dick Jerardi of the Philadelphia Daily News, I, too, was scouring the past performances looking for some eclectic angle regarding the upcoming Eclipse Awards.
And, so, after finally getting around to the PPs, I decided that this year’s Rachel Alexandra/Zenyatta or Zenyatta/Blame controversy were limited to the two-legged practitioners of Thoroughbred sport and not those of the four-legged variety.
There’s nothing wrong with that, of course, and if racing had more controversies like this to understand, justify and explain, that would mean racing matters for what it is, not for what it could or should be. Indeed, even controversy can be good or bad.
Jerardi decided to explore how the withdrawal of Lasix from the juvenile dirt events affected form, using Beyer Speed Figures he helps to craft for Daily Racing Form as a measure. As it turned out, no hypothesis was provable or improvable based solely on a speed criterion.
Empirically, I suspect that most observers knew that without the use of either qualitative or quantitative analysis: Either the babies ran their races, or they did not.
Shanghai Bobby remained undefeated while his Beyer Figure dropped from a career high 94 in the Champagne to an 82 in the Juvenile, his lowest since his debut score.
But that kind of precipitous drop cannot be viewed suspiciously considering the former was a one-turn mile--not a two-turn mile and a sixteenth; a comfortably stalking straightaway half-mile in :47 2/5 vs. a multi-pressured two-turn half in :45 2/5; a five-length blowout as opposed to a gritty, come-again bob of the head.
The distaff side yielded a similar comparison. Beholder earned a lifetime best winning her Juvenile Fillies prep with a 108 Beyer Speed Figure, then got a 95 while winning the Juvenile Fillies.
But the dynamics for the Juvenile Fillies were even more radical when comparing the winner’s figure to her prior start: It was the difference between six furlongs and one and one-sixteenth miles, between one turn and two, between 11 lengths and 1 length, a four week layoff as opposed to five and she was coming off a 20-point top.
Parenthetically, runnerup Executiveprivilege earned a career-best 93 in the Juvenile Fillies only to come back a run a career-low 78 after going back on Lasix. There is only one rule that is immutable in all this: Horses, especially young ones, are not machines.
And, finally, here’s the thing about the bounce: Going in, it is impossible to know how high or low it will be.
With or without Lasix, then, the most perplexing category on this year’s Eclipse Award ballot is for champion trainer: The best statistics belong to three trainers: Bob Baffert, Todd Pletcher and Dale Romans. But the two most compelling set of stats make Baffert the odd man out.
Through the past performances of December 9, Pletcher has been dominant largely on the strength of his numbers—within his own barn! But while it seems at times as if he trains every good horse in America, he really doesn’t.
The only category in which he dominated aside from stable earnings—something every trainer covets--was with juvenile males, and the quantity of his wins, as well as the quality, are worthy of equal note.
Obviously, you can’t earn $20.1 million without “the big horse” in the barn unless you have numbers. But you still have to finish first with them.
His 221 season victories places him third behind the voluminous outfits of Jamie Ness and Steve Asmussen, who each started over 1,200+ runners compared to Pletcher’s 800+. Meanwhile the fourth, fifth and sixth trainers in races won all started more horses.
Of those 221 victories, 42 came in graded stakes, as opposed to Baffert’s extremely worthy 35, especially considering he started 300 fewer runners. Baffert, meanwhile, did most of his winning on one circuit; Pletcher virtually everywhere East of the Mississippi.
But where it all gets interesting is in the Grade 1 category, the championship level, where Baffert has won 13 Grade 1s, three outside California, as opposed to Pletcher’s 11 at seven different racetracks.
However, in our view, Dale Romans did more with less. While starting 100+ fewer horses overcall, Romans won 20 graded stakes, nine of them Grade 1, and he did it on synthetics with Dullahan, turf with Little Mike and filly Tapitsfly, and on dirt with Shackleford.
Most significantly, he overachieved, often winning those races with non-favorites. It’s easier when you run the best horse, as Baffert and Pletcher often did.
What’s interesting is that Romans would have been double-digit odds to win an Eclipse championship when his season began at Gulfstream Park last winter.
And while he might appear to be a consensus third choice in this group, the suspicion is that he’ll overachieve once again when they hand out Eclipse statuettes on January 19.