• What Makes a Horse Great?

    POSTED Sep 21, 2011
    After Winter Memories flopped in the Lake Placid following an ultra-impressive effort in the Lake George — what a difference a lake makes — the filly’s defenders were out in force. According to her adoring fans, many of whom were present at her foaling bearing gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh (just a hunch), the “real” Winter Memories didn’t show up that day, but would in the Garden City.

    Her supporters were right.

    The real Winter Memories came… saw… and kicked the snot out of all comers at Belmont Park on Saturday, including Hungry Island and Kathmanblu — two (of the three) horses that defeated her at the Spa.

    Despite another troubled trip, in which she was blocked and steadied repeatedly, the daughter of El Prado proved much the best once clear in the Garden City. In less time than it took nervous fans to mutter “you say Lezcano, I say Castellano,” the gallant gray zoomed from last to first in the final furlong of the 1 1/8-mile test and notched her first Grade 1 victory by a long neck.

    2011 Garden City Stakes

    And with that visually impressive performance, trainer Jimmy Toner's stable star is once again being showered with the kind of praise that would have made Sunday Silence or even Spectacular Bid blush… but is the hype justified?

    Look, I’m the first person to tell anybody who’ll listen (usually my psychiatrist, reluctantly) that part of what defines talent in a racehorse is the ability to do the extraordinary. Clearly, Winter Memories has that kind of ability, as evidenced by the career-best +9 late speed ration (LSR) that she recorded in the Garden City. Yet, shouldn't Father Time have a say in all of this “greatness gab?”

    Of course, I’m aware that, to some horseplayers, the clock is irrelevant: “Time only matters when you’re in jail,” they like to proclaim. Well, not only are those folks lousy dinner guests (again, I’m guessing), but they are also dead wrong.

    Damon Runyon, the fabled turf writer, once said, “The race is not always to the swift, nor the battle to the strong, but that's the way to bet.”

    Given such a philosophy, I think it's safe to say that Runyon would be no fan of Winter Memories.

    Some veteran racegoers will remember the old Daily Racing Form speed ratings. They were based on the premise that every track record was worth 100 points; for each fifth of a second a particular race was slower than the record, one point was subtracted — ditto for every length a horse was beaten in that contest.

    Hence, a six-furlong dirt race timed in 1:08-4/5 at a track with a six-furlong dirt record of 1:08 would net a 96 speed figure for the winner, a 95 for the second-place finisher that was beaten by a length, and an 84 for the nag (is it still OK to use that term?) that straggled home 12 lengths behind.

    This method was very simple and not tremendously accurate — a lack of quality/consistency of the track records, abhorrent surface conditions and other factors could lead to some wild results — but the speed ratings did prove one thing: good horses run fast.

    From 1960 until 1989 (the last year the DRF speed ratings were based on track records), the eventual Horse of the Year recorded a figure of 95 or greater in 30 of 32 cases (there were two Horse of the Year winners in both 1965 and 1970), while 21 of the 32 champions set or broke at least one track record during the year in which they were honored.

    (Click on image to enlarge)

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    Ironically (or, perhaps, not), the only horses that failed to garner a speed rating of 95 or better during their Horse of the Year campaigns — All Along in 1983 and Ferdinand in 1987 (see above) — both went winless the following year.

    With that in mind, let’s take a peek at the past performances of Winter Memories (the numbers in red represent the old DRF speed ratings):

    (Click on image to enlarge)

    Notice anything? Yeah, not exactly a speed demon, is she?

    Now, it’s only fair to point out that Winter Memories has, to a certain extent, been handicapped by extremely slow paces; and that 55 speed rating in the Lake Placid can be ignored completely as it was earned over a “yielding” turf course (the same track condition that led to All Along’s subpar numbers).

    Still, the data is hardly encouraging. And while we’re on the subject, how about that other “super steed,” the one named after a reality TV star — or, possibly, her dad (a famous trainer) — that competes across the pond?

    (Click on image to enlarge)

    In this case, I used the existing UK records for the tracks involved and, again, the results are not inspiring. Although Frankel received the fourth-highest Timeform figure in history for his win in the Sussex on July 27, his final time for that one-mile event was nearly two seconds off the track record and the slowest since 2008. Yet the 91 speed rating he garnered at Goodwood that day ranks as Frankel’s best as a three-year-old.

    Just to show that I don’t have an axe to grind here — after all, this isn’t the first time I’ve opined that Frankel and Winter Memories may be overrated — let’s take a gander at another UK superstar: 2009 Prix de l'Arc de Triomphe winner Sea The Stars.

    (Click on image to enlarge)

    Unlike the other two, Sea The Stars does fit the criteria of greatness established by previous American Horse of the Year honorees. Not only are all of his (rated) races fast, he also set a new track record at York when he won the Group 1 (the European equivalent of Grade 1) Juddmonte International.

    So, the next time somebody smugly asserts that Winter Memories or Frankel or some other flavor of the week is one of the best horses ever, grab some holy water — beer will work in a pinch — and brandish the past performances of Secretariat below.

    If that doesn’t exorcise their demons of delusion, nothing will.

    (Click on image to enlarge)

    Weekend Wagers

    Coming soon.

    Derek Simon’s Free Selection Statistics

    Races (Selections): 51 (54)
    Wins: 19
    Rate: 37.3%
    Return: $142.10
    ROI: +31.57%

    (This year's published selections through 09/21/11.)

    Note: Play is restricted to any horse(s) that meet my fair odds requirements (when listed). Multiple qualifying contenders will be bet separately, however, multiple bets will be adjusted to equal a single wager and the payoffs averaged. For example a winning WIN/PLACE wager paying $6.20 on top and $4.30 underneath would count as a single bet paying $5.25 (the average of $6.20 and $4.30).

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