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KENTUCKY DERBY 2011: Reviewing The Prep Races

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LOUISVILLE, KY - APRIL 30: Midnight Interlude runs during the morning exercise session in preparation for the 137th Kentucky Derby at Churchill Downs on April 30, 2011 in Louisville, Kentucky.  (Photo by Matthew Stockman/Getty Images)
LOUISVILLE, KY - APRIL 30: Midnight Interlude runs during the morning exercise session in preparation for the 137th Kentucky Derby at Churchill Downs on April 30, 2011 in Louisville, Kentucky. (Photo by Matthew Stockman/Getty Images)
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It's been a wild season of prep races leading up to the 2011 Kentucky Derby. We saw the winter favorite, Uncle Mo, finish 3rd in the Wood while his heir apparent, The Factor, does little running in the Arkansas Derby. We saw a lightly raced Bob Baffert trainee, Midnight Interlude, stun the Santa Anita Derby, while in Arkansas, Archarcharch won the Southwest and Arkansas Derby at odds of 14/1 and 25/1. A 44/1 bomb wins the Tampa Bay Derby (Watch Me Go) and then loses by 17 lengths at Hawthorne in the Illinois Derby.

(Note: I'll be referencing several speed figures and fractions during this post, all of which can be found in the 2011 Triple Crown Excel file.)

Every week the conventional wisdom was challenged, ultimately leaving us with a bunch of decent-to-good races run by most of the Derby contenders this spring. Horses that did run standout races (The Factor, Premier Pegasus), later suffered injury or were proven vulnerable. So what are we left with? Well, let's first take a race-by-race look at what happened this winter/spring.

1/15 Sham Stakes: Tapizar gets the two-turn prep season off to a flying start by rolling home in the Sham by 4 ½ lengths. Anthony's Cross finished 3rd in the five-horse field.

1/22 Lecomte Stakes: Another small field (five horses) sees Wilksonson (3/1) defeat Pants On Fire (2nd) and Justin Philip (last).

1/30 Holy Bull Stakes: Dialed In sweeps by a field of eight in the final ¼ mile to win his first start of 2011. Favorite Mucho Macho Man presses the early pace and fades to 4th in the stretch.

2/12 Sam F. Davis: Brethren presses and early pace and draws off to win by four at odds of 9/10. Watch Me Go gains ground in the stretch to finish 3rd of 10.

2/12 Robert B. Lewis: Anthony's Cross stalks 3/10 favorite Tapizar through quick early fractions and then holds off closing Riveting Reason in the final furlong to win by a nose at 8/1.

2/12 El Camino Real Derby: Silver Medallion comes from off the pace to pass Jakesam in the final furlong for the win while the ½ favorite, Comma to the Top, fades after stalking the early speed and finishes 4th, over four lengths back of the winner.

2/19 Risen Star: Mucho Macho Man stalks soft early fractions (49.24 and 1:13.65) and pulls away in the stretch to win at odds of 7/2. Santiva finishes 2nd in his first start of 2011, while co-favorites Rogue Romance and Machen run a disappointing 3rd and 4th, respectively. Decisive Moment fades to 5th after setting the pace. Pants On Fire does little running and finishes 6th.

2/20 San Vicente Stakes: The Factor zips and opening half-mile in 43.41 on his way to winning the 7 furlong San Vicente over a late-charging Sway Away.

2/21 Southwest Stakes: Archarcharch races mid-pack in the early going and moves to the front in the final ¼ mile to take the win over betting favorite J P's Gusto and second choice Elite Alex. Archarcharch pays $31 for the win.

2/26 Fountain of Youth: Soldat grabs the lead straight from the gate and puts away the field at the top of the stretch to win by two lengths over Gourmet Dinner and To Honor and Serve. Shackleford finishes 5th at odds of 17/1.

3/5 Gotham Stakes: Stay Thirsty uses a strong late move to pass pacesetter The Fed Eased and stalker Norman Asbjornson in deep stretch at odds of 9/10. Betting favorite Toby's Corner finishes 3rd at odds of 3/2.

3/12 San Felipe Stakes: Premier Pegasus comes from well off-the-pace to blow away a field of ten at Santa Anita, one of the more impressive preps to date. Jaycito also makes a late move but can only muster 2nd as the 2/1 favorite. Comma to the Top fades to 4th in the final furlong.

3/12 Tampa Bay Derby: Watch Me Go, at balloon odds of 44/1, edges an even longer shot, 86/1 Crimson Knight, at the wire to win a wild Tampa Bay Derby. Odds-on favorite Brethren presses the early pace and comes up empty in the lane at odds of 1/2.

3/19 Rebel Stakes: The Factor makes every yard a winning on as he blows away a field of nine at Oaklawn Park in the Rebel. Archarcharch sits in the 3rd spot all the way around the track but never challenges the winner. Sway Away never makes a move and finishes 6th as the 9/5 second choice.

3/26 Louisiana Derby: Pants On Fire presses a fairly soft early pace (47.53 and 1:12.02) and then holds off late running Nehro and Mucho Macho Man to win at the Fair Grounds. Nerho was in tight a bit on the turn but rallied for 2nd place over Much Macho Man in the final ½ furlong. Elite Alex, Machen and Wilkinson round out the 4-5-6 spots.

3/26 Spiral Stakes: Animal Kingdom rallies from well off-the-pace in the final 3/8ths of a mile to win the Sprial by 2 ¾ lengths over Decisive Moment. Favorite Positive Response set the pace to the half-mile mark and then threw in the towel. Twinspired rallies from almost last at the half-mile mark to finish 3rd, six lengths back of the winner.

3/27 Sunland Derby: Twice the Appeal, sent off as a 25/1 long shot, rallies in the final furlong to pass a tiring Astrology to win by 1 ½ lengths at Sunland Park. Astrology, the 3/1 second choice, stalked a solid early pace and then came up empty in the stretch.

4/3 Florida Derby: Dialed In, last after a half-mile, passes the field in the final 3/8ths to nip Shackleford by a head at the wire. Shackleford runs a huge race at 69/1 after setting the pace every step of the way. Horses running 1-2-3-4-5-6 after six furlongs finished 2-3-4-5-6-7 at the wire; Dialed In was the only horse to pass another horse in the final 3/8ths of a mile on what was a fairly speed-favoring track at Gulfstream. Soldat runs an extremely poor race and finishes a disappointing 5th. Stay Thirsty never got going and finished 7th.

4/9 Santa Anita Derby: Lightly raced Midnight Interlude overcomes a swerving Comma to the Top in the stretch to win the SA Derby by a head at the wire. Comma to the Top finally displays the form he sported over the winter and finishes a good 2nd after doing all the dirty work early on. Silver Medallion finishes a disappointing 4th as the 5/2 favorite. Anthony's Cross also fails to mount much of a challenge at any stage.

4/9 Wood Memorial: Heavily favored Uncle Mo can't find a final gear after setting the pace at odds of 1/10 and fades to 3rd in the final furlong. Toby's Corner runs a huge race to score by a neck over Arthur's Tale at odds of 9/1. Unlce Mo set fractions of 47.98 and 1:12.28, fairly timid splits, yet had nothing in the tank when it came time to run. A post race exam revealed a GI track infections but it's debatable as to what affect that had on his disappointing performance. Toby's Corner runs a sub :12 second final 1/8th of a mile, 2nd best of any Derby contender at 9 furlongs this spring.

4/9 Illinois Derby: Tampa Bay Derby winner Watch Me Go fails to validate his prior win by running a very poor 6th at Hawthorne. Joe Van stalks the early speed and pulls away to win easily by 4 ½ lengths at the wire.

4/16 Arkansas Derby: Archarcharch makes a strong move in the final 3/8ths of a mile to nip a late charging Nehro at the wire by a neck. The Factor, sent off at odds of 4/5, never sees the lead in the early stages and fades to a non-threatening 7th at the wire. J P's Gusto and Elite Alex can only must 8th and 9th between them. Brethren's Derby hopes are dashed for good after finishing 11th.

4/16 Blue Grass Stakes: Brilliant Speed rallies in deep stretch to nose out Twinspired at the wire at Keeneland. Brilliant Speeds final 1/8th of a mile of 11.60 is the fastest of any Derby contender in this year's 9 furlong prep races. 5/2 tote board choice Santiva doesn't take to the Polytrack surface and finishes 9th of 12; the race is probably a toss for the favorite. Wilkinson finishes 10th.

4/23 Coolmore Lexington: Derby Kitten rallies in deep stretch to beat Prime Cut by 1 ½ lengths at the wire at Keeneland on the Polytrack. Favored Silver Medallion fades to 4th in deep stretch.

Speed Figures and Closing Splits

If we simply review prep races according to popular speed figures from Beyer or Bris, we don't get much in the way of clarity because the figs, for the most part, are a concentrated bunch, with large performances few and far between. The Factor notched triple digit Beyer and Bris figs (and a 5 on the Ragozin scale) in the Rebel, and then proceed to throw in the towel after failing to make the lead in the Arkansas Derby. No other horse earned both a triple digit Beyer and Bris in the same race in any of the other two-turns prep races this spring. Last fall, Uncle Mo and To Honor and Serve posted triples under both Beyer and Bris (Uncle Mo in the Juvenile and THAS in the Remsen) but both have had their issues this spring (and you could make a strong argument that the Remsen fig was shaky from the start due to the small field).

Below is a quick, down and dirty summary of the Top 3 figures under each system for this spring's two-turn races (I didn't include the one-turns since I don't have Rag numbers for all of those).

Beyer:
103 - Rebel Stakes / The Factor
99 - Arkansas Derby / Archarcharch
97 - Sham Stakes / Tapizar

Brisnet:
108 - Fountain of Youth / Soldat
106 - Rebel Stakes / The Factor
103 - Sham Stakes / Tapizar

Ragozin:
3 - San Felipe / Premier Pegasus
4 - Arkansas Derby / Archarcharch
5 - Rebel Stakes / The Factor
5 - Santa Anita Derby / Midnight Interlude

Three systems, three different interpretations of which prep was the fastest based on an adjusted speed figure. Beyer loved the Rebel, Brisnet the Fountain of Youth (and also the Rebel), and Ragozin the San Felipe and Arkansas Derby. (The Beyer and Bris numbers, interestingly enough, were a bit cold on Premier Peagsus' win in the San Felipe, while Rag had that as the highest of any this spring.) After those races, things start to bunch up quite a bit between events such as the Louisiana Derby, Wood Memorial, Santa Anita Derby, Florida Derby, etc. The systems go back and forth between them rating one race higher than the other system, with the only consistency coming with The Factor's Rebel, a race all three systems loved.

If we look simply at raw times by individual distances, specifically the closing splits of prep races winners, we get the following picture (these numbers include one-turn races):

Top 3 Closing Fractions - 8f, 8.5f and 9.0f

8.0 Furlongs:
22.87 - Timely Writer / Uncle Mo
24.16 - Holy Bull / Dialed In
24.86 - Jerome Hcp. / Adios Charlie

8.5 Furlongs:
29.29 - Lexington / Derby Kitten* (Polytrack)
30.33 - Risen Star / Mucho Macho Man
30.89 - Gotham / Stay Thirsty

9.0 Furlongs:
11.60 - Blue Grass / Brilliant Speed* (Polytrack)
11.97 - Wood Memorial / Toby's Corner
12.34 - Santa Anita Derby / Midnight Interlude

And here's that same information but looking at the slowest closing splits by winners at each distance:

Bottom 3 Closing Fractions - 8.0f, 8.5f and 9.0f

8.0 Furlongs:
27.39 - Smarty Jones / Caleb's Posse
26.20 - Jean Laffitte / Decisive Moment
26.07 - Southwest Stakes / Archarcharch

8.5 Furlongs:
31.91 - Sam F. Davis / Brethren
31.47 - San Felipe / Premier Pegasus
31.46 - Tampa Bay Derby / Watch Me Go

9.0 Furlongs
13.56 - Robert B. Lewis / Anthony's Cross
13.47 - Sunland Derby / Twice the Appeal
13.36 - Spiral Stakes / Animal Kingdom* (Polytrack)

A few additional notes concerning some these prep races:

  • Dialed In's 13.09 was the 4th slowest come home time when compared to other preps at 9 furlongs. The other horses in that field also all came home very slow - Shackleford (13.71), To Honor and Serve (14.51), Soldat (14.67), and Stay Thirsty (15.14).
  • Nehro came home in 12.42 when he finished 2nd to Archarcharch in the Arkansas Derby, fastest of the field. Nehro also came home in 12.35 when 2nd to Pants On Fire in the Louisiana Derby; Elite Alex had the fastest closing split at 12.16.
  • Comma to the Top finished up in 12.63 when running 2nd to Midnight Interlude in the Santa Anita Derby.
  • Unlce Mo ran the final 1/8th in 12.88 in the Wood.
  • Twinspired clocked 12.24 for the final 1/8th in the Blue Grass on the Poly.
  • Santiva finished up in 30.55 when running 2nd to Mucho Macho Man in the Risen Star.
  • Mucho Macho Man came home in 12.79 when 3rd in the Louisiana Derby, 7th fastest of 12.

So Who Was The Best?

Race to race, I thought the races at Gulfstream produced the deepest and most competitive fields of the prep races this spring, even though the ratings systems are all over the map on which performances were the best.

Dialed In's Holy Bull was excellent; one of the stronger preps in my mind, but it was a one-turn event so it ranks a bit lower on the scale. Soldat was quite good in the Fountain of Youth but struggled when getting dirt kicked into his face in the Florida Derby. He also won impressively in a tough allowance race in the slop.

The Florida Derby featured a big field of well-known contenders but many of them didn't do much of anything that day. Dialed In did what he needed to do to pass a game Shackelford in the stretch but the race was run in a very odd manner (as I mentioned above) and nobody came home well in terms of unadjusted final splits.

In Louisiana, Pants On Fire's win in the Louisiana Derby is looking better and better as the prep season goes on, although I liked Nehro's run just a bit better due to some traffic issues he encountered, even though he finished 2nd.

The Arkansas preps were a bit of a conundrum for me; I thought Archarcharch's win in the Arkansas Derby was pretty decent but the Rebel was the case of the field letting a speed horse have his own way and it resulted in a fantastic, effort by The Factor. It's tough to evaluate the other horses in a race like that when you let a horse take it all the way. The Southwest, in my opinion, was pretty weak from top to bottom; Archarcharch scored a nice win but his Arkansas Derby race was much, much better.

Out in California, things were all over the map, culminating in a Santa Anita Derby won by a horse making only his fourth lifetime start and first against non-maidens, Midnight Interlude. That being said, I was really impressed with this colt's victory even if I'm a bit gun-shy of a horse with that thin of a career winning the Kentucky Derby.

In Kentucky, we had some very nice performance at Turfway and Keeneland, but the nature of Polytrack races and the fact that all the winners were successful on the turf prior to these preps makes it difficult to really get a sense as to how they'll do in Kentucky. However, Animal Kingdom, winner of the Spiral, has a bit of dirt experience, while runner-up Decisive Moment owns a couple of wins on the main track.

In New York, the big story might have been Uncle Mo's flop in the Wood, but the sub-story was Toby's Corner and Stay Thirsty taking turns in the winner's circle in the three prep races at Aqueduct: Whirlaway, Gotham and Wood. The Wood winner, Stay Thirsty, is now a Derby defection, but Stay Thirsty remains even after a bad race in the Florida Derby.

At the end of the day, of the prep circuits - California, Florida, Arkansas, New York, Louisiana or Kentucky - I think Florida, specifically Gulfstream, had the most consistent and less unpredictable group. Logical horses took most of the preps at Gulfstream while the other locations all saw some unconventional and surprising horses make big runs. Of course, that alone doesn't mean that the Gulfstream races were better - and individually, that's probably not the case - but as a group of Derby preps, I think Gulfstream produced the best.

As for which prep race was the singular best of the group? That's a tougher question. I would not rate the Florida Derby on top as that race still seems like a bit of an oddly run affair. I think Soldat's run in the Fountain of Youth was one of the spring's top efforts. The same can be said for The Factor and Premier Pegasus in the Rebel and San Felipe, but I'm bouncing those two since they won't be running in the Derby and not much ran well behind them. The Poly races are were good wins but are sort of in their own category.

Surprisingly (or maybe not that surprising), I've got the Louisiana Derby pretty high on my list, along with the Arkansas Derby and the Holy Bull. I wasn't high on the LaDerby when it occurred, but when you look back on all of the preps this spring, that race turned out to be pretty decent and Pants On Fire was a solid winner. Nehro went on to validate that race in when he finished 2nd to Archarcharch in the Arkansas Derby, another race that deserves to be near the top in of the heap.

So enough about what I think, what do you think is the top prep race this spring?