Thursday, May 08, 2008
For Big Brown, There May Be More Improvement in Store
If it weren’t for the two weeks between the Kentucky Derby and Preakness, the continued development of Big Brown likely wouldn’t come to an end anytime soon. His unusual Equiform performance-figure pattern supposes this, even while he competes at a very high level.
Big Brown isn’t the greatest Derby winner ever to pass beneath the Twin Spires but there weren’t many that were projected to be still developing. But that possibility exists with Big Brown. His best still might be ahead of him.
This makes perfect sense as the colt gains maturity and experience. In the Derby, only his fourth start, he showed a dimension many didn’t think he had. And those that did weren’t sure.
As horsemen channeling Yogi Berra might say, you don’t know they can do it until they do it.
And that’s exactly what Rick Dutrow told HRI by phone in the run-up to Derby. “He has to go out and prove it. Then he’s got to go out and prove it all over again.”
As his race showed, it wasn’t hubris when Dutrow and IEAH managing partner Michael Iavarone chose the extreme outside with five slips remaining during the final stage of the Kentucky Derby draw.
And neither was it hubris when Kent Desormeaux took Big Brown back off the early pace. Then, at the juncture you’d expect Desormeaux to ask Big Brown for his run--approaching the five furlong pole--he took him back a little more.
OK, maybe there was some hubris on the part of the three-time Derby winning jockey. Desormeaux, who occasionally suffers from brain-lock, was superb in America’s biggest horse race. His performance on Golden Doc A the day before in the Oaks, however, won’t be remembered as an artistic achievement.
The confidence exhibited by trainer and jockey was at once honest and refreshing, even if Dutrow made a remark about the Derby’s importance that was, let’s say, indelicate. But he manned up and apologized, something you’d never hear from, let’s say, Roger Clemens.
Although not germane to his performance-figure sequence, Big Brown’s career began on turf where, from that point forward, he never has taken a developmentally backward step. His debut figure was a very good, but unremarkable, 72.25.
His three succeeding dirt races were a season’s debut 76.75, a 79.50 for his Florida Derby, and a 80.25 in the Derby. Of greater significance, his developmental pattern has been nothing short of flawless.
In his three-year-old debut, Big Brown earned a pace figure of 79 to go with his 76.75 final figure. In Equiform language, this is a “compression line;” when the pace and final figure are within four performance points of each other.
Ideally, this kind of energy distribution indicates two things; that a “bounce,” or negative reaction from a big effort, is less likely, and that success in distance races is likely to continue.
In addition to being visually jaw dropping, he moved forward in the Florida Derby by nearly three points, a significant move forward but not definitively harmful.
When that figure is coupled with a pace figure of 84, a.k.a. a “new pace top,” another forward move is a real possibility. But since these figures were earned at such a high level, it’s not necessarily the given it is when horses earn a lower number. Speed is finite.
So, what did Big Brown do for an encore? It’s called a “reversal,” another favorable pattern. He moved forward 3/4s of a point to a new lifetime top of 80.25, only this time he distributed his energy more efficiently. He ran a faster final figure than pace figure. While extremely common on grass, it’s unusual in dirt routes.
Trip handicappers call this phenomenon a change of pace. Casual fans call it “wow, did you see him make that move on the far turn?”
Historically, the figure he earned last Saturday was par for the Derby course. Derby winners generally earn numbers in the 80-81 range.
In this decade, from 2000 forward, here are the winners with Equiform final figures: Fusaichi Pegasus, 80.50; Monarchos, 81.75; War Emblem, 80; Funny Cide, 80.50; Smarty Jones, 80.50; Giacomo, 76.75; Barbaro, 82, and Street Sense an 81.
Given that the Preakness will be his fifth lifetime start, and the reversal indicating Big Brown is just now learning how to distribute his energy, another top figure is possible. But Dutrow said he likes to give his horses approximately six weeks between starts.
Not that the modern thoroughbred can stand any more stress, heaven knows.
Considering the other storyline that developed about three furlongs after the Churchill Downs finish line, racing fans and an entire industry will hold its collective breath when the Preakness Stakes is run for the 133rd time next weekend. But that's a story for another day; tomorrow.
Written by John Pricci
Wednesday, May 07, 2008
Remembering Hall of Famer Frank Whiteley and the Legendary Ruffian
If asked, any turf writer will tell you that one of the best parts of his job--cashing a bet and eating lunch notwithstanding--is time spent in the mornings, before the afternoon’s parimutuel blood-letting.
On those occasions, you try to show up at the barn about 10 a.m., after training hours and before the barn phone starts ringing off the hook--the worst part of a trainer‘s job. By comparison, training horses is a lot easier than cooling out owners.
And so you’d greet your subject: “how are you, Bill,” “hey Nick,” “good morning, Shug.” Dealing with the media is all a big part of it now. Some successful of trainers even have their own publicists. A good idea for some things, but you can‘t look a press release in the eye.
Back in the day you were a little more formal, something like, “good morning, Mr. Whittingham,” “Could I have five minutes Mr. Gaver?” Anything less and you ran the risk of being chased out of the shed with a pitchfork-bearing horseman in close pursuit.
Last week, in the run-up to Kentucky Derby, the sport lost a great horseman. Frank Whiteley Jr. was gone, succumbed at his home in Camden, South Carolina, where he wintered every year getting the babies and the lay-ups ready. He rarely arrived in New York prior to the Belmont Park spring/summer meet.
To me, he was always Mr. Whiteley. I never could run very fast.
You never went to the Whiteley barn to pass the time of day, not like talking KU hoops with Shug, or the other Wildcats with Todd, or the Yankees with Nick. Whiteley just didn’t have, or want to make, the time.
Frank Whiteley was all business all the time. He could spin a yarn if he were in the mood, which was seldom. His stories usually went better over a cocktails but he didn‘t socialize much, especially with writers. I think his son David, a talented horse trainer himself, inherited some of that, sans charm.
Whiteley was a great horseman and has Hall of Fame credentials to prove it. Besides, no one goes around calling someone the “Fox of Laurel,” or anywhere else, for that matter, unless you were crazy like one, and took the time to cover all the angles.
I remember making the walk-over from the Whiteley barn to Belmont Park’s paddock for the Coaching Club American Oaks with Ruffian. No one knew then it would be her last race. At the time, her ill-fated match with Kentucky Derby winner Foolish Pleasure was not even on the drawing board.
Her main rival was a real comer, a late developing King Ranch filly called Equal Change. If Ruffian was big black and beautiful, Equal Change was a scopey, powerful and chestnut, I recall.
From the once powerful string of Robert Kleberg, whose family owned a significant piece of Texas, Equal Change was fresh with a pedigree suited to the mile and a half. This would be no automatic coronation of a New York filly triple crown winner.
An announcement came over the speaker system on the Belmont backstretch, like it did for every race: “Bring your horses over for the eighth race.” No one at the Whiteley barn was in any particular hurry. I asked Frank Tours, press liaison between the racing office and the horseman, what gives?
“Frank wants to get to the paddock last.”
“The filly’s high strung and you don’t want them in front of a big crowd too long. It’s an advantage to spend as little time around all those people as possible. Besides, she’s the star, and Frank knows it.”
With entourage in tow, Ruffian walked through the tunnel and up a slight incline toward the paddock. Having reached that point, Whiteley waited a minute before crossing over into the approach to the walking ring, the area adjacent to the present racing secretary’s office.
Ruffian’s handlers stopped right there so that the filly could survey the landscape, her ears signaling, before finally entering the ring. Whiteley, who once bragged he never read Preston Burch’s primer on training, covered all the bases.
Equal Change made a strong late run from the middle of Belmont’s sweeping far turn, loomed a possible upsetter approaching midstretch, but Ruffian held her safe. No filly ever finished in front of her.
Whiteley kept her in a jam-packed winners’ circle only long enough to take a picture before having her whisked back to the barn, making only the mandatory stop at the spit barn for post-race tests.
I never spent too much time around Whiteley, not that he’d allow, and neither did any of my contemporaries, for that matter. I can say only that actor Sam Shepard, a horseman himself, gave a good portrayal of Whiteley’s no-nonsense attitude in last year’s made-for-TV movie on Ruffian.
Acknowledging that he had much to work with, Whiteley took over the training of the six-year-old Forego and earned a third consecutive Horse of the Year title for Mrs. Gerry’s gelding. Forego won another championship at 7, but Horse of the Year went to then undefeated Triple Crown champion, Seattle Slew.
Whiteley won about every storied event worth winning: the Jockey Club Gold Cup, Travers, Wood, Woodward, an unforgettable Brooklyn with Damascus, Carter, Marlboro Cup, Metropolitan Mile, a Preakness with Tom Rolfe, and the Belmont Stakes.
A handful of self taught horsemen are born with the ability to be recognized among the sport’s best of all time. But there’s only one Frank Whiteley.
Written by John Pricci
Saturday, April 26, 2008
Big Brown Tops Powerful Pool 1 Futures Entry
Until the industry comes up with a better solution to the Kentucky Derby future book wagering scenario--namely to include a significantly greater number of horses--Pool 1 remains the only way to go.
Of course, value is in the eye of the beholder, and there were some bargains still available in Pools 2 or 3. But the bad news is that it probably would have taken a clunker of a race by a major contender to make its price appealing.
Think you might have gotten better than 5-1 on Pyro had his Blue Grass been run before Pool 3?
Under the present guidelines, had you taken the field--traditionally the favorite or near-favorite at the end of Pool 1 wagering--next Saturday you’d be sitting with, among others, a field-entry of Big Brown, Gayego, Recapturetheglory, Adriano, Cool Coal Man, Big Truck, Behindatthebar and the filly, Eight Belles.
If Rick Dutrow keeps his word, you’d be lucky to get 3-1 standing alone with Big Brown.
Off his strong, wide-both-turns placing in the Arkansas Derby, it’s unlikely 37-1 will be offered on Z Fortune at the Downs or anywhere else on Saturday.
Even if horseplayers or casual fans have serious concerns about whether early second choice Colonel John will handle the Churchill dirt, I don’t believe 19-1 will be readily available.
Anyone who saw Tale Of Ekati’s five furlongs in 1:00.40 at Keeneland April 23rd will get in line early to collect 33-1 on the winner of the Grade 1 Wood Memorial.
No Prado? No problem. Eibar Coa is 2-for-3 on Barclay Tagg’s three-year-old.
The Denis Of Cork people clearly overplayed their hand and consequently might not make it into the gate but, if he does, his ability and fondness for the Churchill surface would make 46-1 look like a gift-horse, Illinois Derby and all.
And while many fans doubt whether the fast, ultra-consistent Smooth Air can carry his ability the entire trip, all would line up to find out at 159-1. At least they should be, off his key-race Florida Derby placing alone.
Written by John Pricci