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Weekend Review: Is Zenyatta 10+ lengths slower than Blame and Quality Road?

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A tremendous amount of great racing took place this weekend on both coasts but I'm going to start this post with the Whitney because I think the results of that race have a much bigger impact on what we will see going forward.

-Post-Whitney there was a lot of talk about the ride of jockey John Velazquez on Quality Road, with many believing that he didn't push the button early enough, causing him to get nipped at the wire.  I agree that Johnny V. was doing a lot of looking around at the top of the stretch and perhaps it cost him the race based on the slim margin of defeat, but I think the fact that QR might have won with a better ride is irrelevant in the big scheme of things.

The results of the Whitney raise some serious questions as to whether Quality Road wants anything to do with a mile and a quarter in the Breeders' Cup Classic.  The early pace Saturday was anything by hot; Quality Road was allowed to click off 24.41, 48.06, and 1:11.92 for his first three fractions...splits that are decent but not overly quick for a horse of his stature.  Yet, even with the soft set-up, Quality Road's final furlong was a pedestrian 12.53; had Quality Road run another 1/8th of a mile yesterday, it's likely he would have put up a final ¼ mile fraction of 25+.  I don't think there is any way that would get it done in the Classic.

Here's the key question for Quality Road: do we think that the pace in the Classic will be faster or slower than Saturday's 1:12 six furlongs in the Whitney?  At worst, I think it will be equal to that.  Quality Road, Rachel Alexandra, Super Saver, and maybe First Dude, would be plenty of pace to ensure something equal to 1:12 for six. 

-If I had to put money on the horse that I think has the best chance to beat Zenyatta in the Classic it would absolutely be Blame and not Rachel Alexandra or Quality Road.  Closing into an unpressured early leader that ran through a light pace, Blame got a beautifully timed ride by Garrett Gomez to nip.  A solid, solid win for Blame.

-What if Bob Baffert hadn't fired Gomez from Lookin At Lucky?  What kind of decision would he have for the Classic?  Who would you ride in the Classic: Lookin At Lucky or Blame?

-The Formulator interactive chart has a preliminary Beyer number for Blame and Quality Road at 111.  The Whitney was the only two-turn race on the entire Saratoga card Saturday, and while I know that the Beyer speed gurus generally come up with one variant for the main track (and don't split it between sprints and routes), I have difficulty believing that a day full of dirt sprints tells us anything as to how the track is playing for a two-turn race, especially when that two-turn race has a much lighter early pace scenario than the sprints.  

-Musket Man ran a very nice third to Blame and Quality Road, putting up one of his traditional consistent performances.  I'm guessing that his connections will point him towards the glory of the Classic but I think he'd make a very formidable contender for the Breeders' Cup Dirt Mile.

-Speaking of possible pace horses in the Classic, West Virginia Derby winner Concord Point has to be thrown into that consideration after a tough stretch duel with runner-up Exhi on Saturday afternoon.  Concord Point would be an unlikely winner but his presence would certainly set things up better for the off-the-pace runners like Zenyatta, Blame, and Ice Box

-Majesticperfection, under a cool ride by Shaun Bridgmohan, easily disposed of the field in the Grade 1 Arthur G. Vanderbilt and stamped himself as an early favorite to win the Breeders' Cup Sprint.  The Beyer for the Vanderbilt came back at a hefty 115, marking the second consecutive race that Majesticperfection has earned a figure that high. 

-The Filly & Mare Sprint division became a bit clearer this weekend with Champagne D'Oro winning the Test andSecret Gypsy winning the Honorable Miss.  I don't know that I can really separate those two performances this weekend; while Champagne D'Oro faced the larger and deeper field, she was running against three year olds while Secret Gypsy was facing older.  At the same time, Secret Gypsy faced just four other contenders.

-According to the Formulator interactive charts, Zenyatta earned a 94 Beyer figure for her win in the Hirsch, a 17-point difference from the winning figure of Blame in the Whitney.  Based on Andrew Beyer's beaten-lengths adjustment chart, that difference at a mile and an eighth suggests that Zenyatta was something like ten lengths slower than Blame and Quality Road on Saturday. I suppose that given the slow pace of the Hirsch that the difference makes mathematical sense, but I don't believe Zenyatta is ten lengths slower than any horse in the country.  

 In Andrew Beyer's book Beyer on Speed  he discusses the first time he attempted to use his speed figures on Australian grass racing during a trip down under.  In that chapter he engages in a useful discussion of international racing on the grass (specifically European racing) and it's applications to speed figures:

"Racing in England and France, in particular, is utterly foreign to an American; horses gallop along in a tight pack in virtual slow motion during the early stages of a race and don't accelerate in earnest until they turn into the stretch.  As a result, their final times are irrelevant, and speed figures would be useless as a handicapping tool." (Emphasis added)

Beyer went on to later to suggest the dichotomy between dirt and turf racing:

"Perhaps the determining factor in turf races is the horses' finishing kick.  Perhaps speed figures have limited usefulness because they measure a horse's overall performance, from start to finish, instead of placing an emphasis on the final fraction."

I think this is what we are seeing with the speed figures of Zenyatta compared to those of her rivals that are running on dirt.  The emphasis on speed in dirt races, and its reduced importance in turf and synthetic racing, creates a false gap when comparing performances between the two surfaces.  If we are to use speed figures as predictive or descriptive tools, then we must accept the limitations inherent within them.  Otherwise, we are living in a world where Zenyatta is considered to be ten lengths slower than Blame and Quality Road.  I'm not sure that's a world I can accept. 

People can make the argument that Zenyatta could be beaten by Blame, Quality Road, or Rachel, but I can't accept the belief that she would finish ten lengths behind any of those horses...ever.  Yet the figures suggest that is exactly how far behind them she is.