Sunday, November 19, 2017

So Which Is It: Race Results or Body of Work?

Today’s thought started out as a thread on Tom Jicha’s most recent offering where the topic was: Which horse might be this year’s rightful three-year-old champion?

The discussion later talked about the relative merits of the Kentucky Derby vs. the Travers Stakes as to which is the more influential race with respect to end-of-year championship titles.

In TJ’s defense—not that he needs any from me—he did not make up a false equivalency when he talked about how trainers, when met by non-racing fans, are never whether they ever won the Travers.

On this, you don’t have to take Jicha’s word. It’s trainers themselves, when asked as first-time combatants or Derby winners, the first question is always "have you ever won the Kentucky Derby?".

It’s the same for jockeys, that's because there’s nothing quite like it in this country or anywhere in the world. America didn't raid Europe or the Far East in the 1970s when seeking the best livestock, it was the place where most of the best horses in the world are born.

There may be more prestigious races in the world; the Arc de Triomphe, Melbourne Cup, etc., but none with the worldwide cache of the Derby.

And even foreign fans concede that no event is as glitzy and gaudily as packaged for mass consumption. It’s an American fairy tale, that once-in-a-lifetime-in-a-lifetime-of-chance horse race.

In a qualitative sense, the Travers on is a much better horse race because the cream has risen to the top by then. There are the Triple Crown achievers that show up, the Haskell winner, or a late developing phenomenon such as Arrogate.

If Tesio were alive today he’d find the Derby’s timing abhorrent. For three-year-old Thoroughbreds in the spring, a savagely contested mile and a quarter on the first Saturday in May is way too much and way too soon.

But as Confucius often said: It is what it is.

Many horsemen have told me over the years that three-year-olds should wait until June to run that far, virtually the same time we ask then to win the mile and a half Belmont. As a people, patience never has been an American virtue.

The Derby gets more consideration in end-of-year balloting because voters know that a Derby victory is a horseman’s most sought after prize, an outstanding achievement for trainers, jockeys and owners alike.

Of course, not all Grade 1s are created equal. While the brainchild for a breeding industry that never takes its eye off the bottom line, grading nevertheless is the most practical way to define class. On balance, a G1 horse will beat a G3 rival most every time.

In the case of Always Dreaming, back to back winner of the 2017 Florida and Kentucky Derbies, he brought a near insurmountable divisional lead into racing’s second season but it appears that those consecutive wins emptied the tank.

Then the announcement was made that the Travers disappointment would not target the Breeders’ Cup Classic and focus on a four year old campaign instead, widely hailed as the right thing to do.

And that made sense, especially considering the $16-million Pegasus will be run over a surface and at a distance he loves; a no-brainer.

But now his return has been delayed, the target now a late spring/summer campaign which presumably targets the Met Mile then either or both of Saratoga Grade 1s, the Whitney and Woodward.

However, it also raises the question how much of the Derby-winning version Always Dreaming has left, and it’s only fair to ask.

But as far as the 2017 Eclipse title is concerned, is there really a need for discussion?

West Coast’s second season was as impressive as Always Dreaming’s first, perhaps more so since he defeated all who were title aspirants at one time or another

And he ended his season with a solid third behind his elders, protem Horse of the Year Gun Runner and the streaking, accomplished Collected. His resume clearly is the most title worthy.

Leading Juveniles Vie for Eclipse Title

Next year’s three year olds remain juveniles for another 43 days and that division also has inspired debate. In our view, this divisional puzzle is a lot more vexatious.

It’s the age old Eclipse question: Which is more righteous? The head to head match-up result or is it the body of work?

And that’s what makes Bolt d’Oro vs. Good Magic so interesting.

Good Magic won their only meeting when he won the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile in which Bolt d’Oro was a trip-compromised, good third.

An aside: We personally do not consider trips as either a qualifier or disqualifier of championship status. As they say in court, it's “let the record show...”

The question is this: Is a placing in the G1 Champagne and Juvenile victory more or less impressive than Bolt d’Oro’s two Grade 1 scores and his Juvenile third?

Personally, we’re still mulling the question over and I won't beat myself up whatever I decide.

One of my first Eclipse litmus tests is to count Grade 1 wins and go from there. In that context, this is an open and shut case.

Which carries more prestige and value; a second in the Champagne or a win in the 7-furlong Del Mar Futurity? Sorry, we believe there’s no comparison; the former.

But ‘Bolt’ also won the G1 FrontRunner and that’s a serious victory, which made him 3-for-3 into the Juvenile. Good Magic went into the Juvenile a maiden.

So it’s two G1s and a G1 placing vs. one G1 win and placing, but the one was the big one. I’m a huge believer in the Juvenile and Juvenile Fillies should be regarded as championship defining events.

Choosing the “best horse” is often subjective in horse racing, so it matters not that I believe Good Magic will make the better three year old. But there is plenty of time for that.

It is likely that both camps will sit and await the results of the balloting but there is a clear tie-breaking opportunity next month that would still give these two plenty of time to freshen for a Derby campaign, especially if their trainers take the two-prep tack.

CashCall Futurity, anyone?

Written by John Pricci

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