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Handicapping Insights

HANDICAPPING INSIGHTS

(reprinted from the FREE Handicapper's Edge newsletter)
APRIL 20, 2007
by Dick Powell

I like speed figures and use the BRIS Speed ratings in my handicapping. That said, I have often questioned whether slow-paced races can ever earn big speed figures. And after last Saturday's Blue Grass S. (G1), it's more of a question than racing over Polytrack.

Twenty years ago, many handicappers liked Theatrical (Ire) in the Breeders' Cup Turf (G1). One reason why was that his chief rival, Manila, had just earned a relatively slow speed figure in the Turf Classic (G1).

Manila's problem was not that he was slower than Theatrical but that he came out of a very slow-paced race where the first six furlongs were run in 1:16 and change. They finished up in 1:11, but that only resulted in the 1 1/2 miles being run in 2:27 and change; thus, the low speed figure. Pace might not always make the race, but pace certainly makes the speed figure. The simple fact is that fast-paced races tend to yield higher speed figures than slow-paced races. BRIS now gives you Race Shapes that highlight how fast the leaders are going. Combined with the BRIS Pace figures, you can quickly gauge the pace scenario of previous races.

By all accounts, the Blue Grass was slower than normal. The winner, DOMINICAN (El Corredor), only earned a BRIS Speed figure of 98. But with a first half run in :51.46, what else would you expect?

Correctly predicted by ESPN's Randy Moss on their telecast, there was no pace to this field and all the riders decided to take back at the start leaving Edgar Prado aboard Teuflesberg (Johannesburg) on the lead. Nobody wanted the lead, and the reason was the belief that you can't win at Keeneland going two turns if you go to the front. BRIS Track Bias Stats reinforce this notion, with only one front-end winner from 18 races going two turns over the Polytrack.

With the field tightly packed, they hit six furlongs in 1:16.65, with only about seven lengths covering the seven horses. The running got serious when they turned for home, and Teuflesberg held on grimly. Zanjero (Cherokee Run) ducked to the inside, Street Sense (Street Cry [Ire]) was battling to his outside and Great Hunter (Aptitude) was trying to split horses with a furlong to go.

Teuflesberg veered out inside the furlong pole, forcing Corey Nakatani to take up aboard 9-5 second choice Great Hunter. Street Sense was battling gamely and looked like he would get up, but here came Dominican on the far outside under a furious drive by Rafael Bejarano. Four horses hit the wire and Dominican had his nose down on the outside of Street Sense. Zanjero finished a head back in third and Teuflesberg held on for fourth. Great Hunter checked in fifth, less than two lengths behind the winner despite a very rough trip.

Like most of this year's Kentucky Derby (G1) preps, the Blue Grass raised more questions than it answered. Obviously with a full starting gate of 20 on the first Saturday of May, there's no chance that we would see the same pace scenario that we saw at Keeneland. Do we penalize the five runners that are going on to the Derby since they all ran "slow?"

Is Dominican a Polytrack specialist? All three of his wins have come over the artificial surface, but can his sudden form reversal be attributed to his being gelded before this season? Regardless of the pace or surface, Dominican's final furlong was breath-taking and he was a good third over the Churchill Downs main track last November in the Kentucky Jockey Club S. (G2). He might be more versatile than given credit for.

Did Street Sense get enough out of a race that turned into a quarter-mile sprint to the wire? With his campaign of only two prep races, there's not a lot of room for error. Why did he duck in during the stretch run? Would Zanjero have won if he went to the outside instead of the rail down the stretch?

If the Blue Grass is a throw-out race one that can be ignored since valid conclusions are impossible to draw then how do we gauge the lightly-raced entrants that go to the Derby with only two or three prep races? As for the criticism of Polytrack, would you prefer four horses with their heads down on the wire or Sinister Minister winning last year's Blue Grass by 12 3/4 lengths and earning a 116 BRIS Speed rating? That race was as phony a Derby prep as we have ever seen. Give me last Saturday's Blue Grass any day.

Oaklawn Park ran the Arkansas Derby (G2) last Saturday about an hour after the Blue Grass and even though it was dominated by CURLIN (Smart Strike), it still raised some questions. Can a horse that has not started as a juvenile win the Kentucky Derby? Can a horse with only three lifetime starts win it? How good are the horses that Curlin dominated in his two Oaklawn starts for new trainer Steve Asmussen?

Based on what I saw, the answer to all three questions is a resounding "Yes!" Curlin broke well for Robby Albarado, sat on the inside while saving ground behind a modest pace, cruised up to take the lead on the far turn, then threw in a final furlong of :11.91 to draw off and win by 10 1/2 lengths. He earned a BRIS Speed rating of 102 and goes to Kentucky as one of the most interesting Derby starters we've seen in years.

Originally trained by Helen Pitts, Curlin did not make his career debut until February 3 at Gulfstream when he decimated a field of eight three-year-olds going seven furlongs. The race was so impressive that he was purchased privately for a reported $3.5 million by a group that promptly turned him over to Asmussen.

Not only has he won all three starts by wide margins in fast times, but he looked good doing it. He has natural gate speed, settles immediately for Albarado and then has endless energy in the stretch. I'm not saying he's my Derby pick, but leave him out at your own risk.


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