• Hooked On Speed

    POSTED Jun 1, 2012
    For years now I’ve been bemoaning the fact that speed has become a forgotten factor in American dirt races. With the advent of all-weather surfaces and more and more grass racing — both of which stress late speed — the new modus operandi seems to be: waltz out of the gate, gallop along at a glacial pace until the quarter-pole and, then, start running like heck.

    In his 2006 book “Jockey: The Rider's Life in American Thoroughbred Racing,” jockey Ramon Dominguez describes this style beautifully.

    “Once we leave the gate, I want to get [my mount] relaxed and just take it as easy as possible,” Dominguez related. “I try to be patient, listen to the horse and let him go wherever he wants to go. If he wants to be last early, we’ll be last. If the pace is very slow, I’ll try and stay in touch with the field without rushing my horse.”

    “Depending on how the race is developing, I’ll start going after them at the half-mile or three-eighths pole,” the champion rider added.

    Of course, some horses respond beautifully to this type of handling. As I noted earlier, turf and all-weather specialists are famous for their ability to rate early and motor late — even the frontrunners (see Little Mike below).

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    However, some horses perform better when allowed to stretch their legs early — and some simply must be given their heads in the opening furlongs to have any chance at all. In a previous column, Ichided jockey Chantal Sutherland for her ride aboard Game On Dude, one of these headstrong types, in the Dubai World Cup. Despite a 25.72-second opening quarter in that event, Sutherland attempted to rate Game On Dude and the horse responded with one of the worst efforts of his career.

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    But, lately, there have been some encouraging signs that things may be changing — owners, trainers and jockeys are realizing (once again) that speed can be a potent weapon, particularly on dirt.

    First, there was Bodemeister’s catch-me-if-you-can run in the Kentucky Derby (I’ll Have Another could); then, there was Shackleford’s catch-me-if-you can effort in the Met Mile (Caleb’s Posse couldn’t).

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    In fact, few horses demonstrate the importance of letting a fast horse run fast more than Shackleford. In the five races in which he’s recorded a -8 early speed ration (ESR) or less, he’s won three times and finished second twice. In his other races, he’s 11: 2-2-1.

    To paraphrase the great American philosopher, Pete “Maverick” Mitchell, sometimes horses feel the need… the need for speed.

    Belmont Bits

    With the Belmont Stakes and I’ll Have Another’s quest for eternal glory now a mere week away, I thought I would share some interesting tidbits on the final leg of the Triple Crown:

    * Although it’s called “The Test of Champions,” recent winners of the Belmont Stakes haven’t exactly reminded racing fans of Nashua or Damascus. Since 1992, Belmont victors have won just 24.3 percent of their subsequent starts (28-115) — after having won 41.1 percent of their races beforehand (67-163).

    * Since 2000, only five Belmont champs had previously won a stakes race. Four of them — Summer Bird, Da’ Tara, Jazil and Commendable — had won just once prior to scoring in the Belmont.

    * A few recent bombs notwithstanding, the Belmont Stakes has actually been relatively formful, as the post time favorite has won 55 of 129 editions of the race in which the odds were recorded (42.6 percent).

    * Despite all the talk about the benefits of rest, every Belmont winner since 1992 raced within the past 36 days.

    * Since 1999, only two horses that competed in the Preakness — Afleet Alex (2005) and Point Given (2001) —were able to win in New York.

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