• California Chrome Proves the Race is Not Always to the Swift

    POSTED May 9, 2014

    I’ve said it before, I’ll say it again: racing fans are a fickle bunch. Win in a fast time, à la Game On Dude in the Santa Anita Handicap, and it’s because of a “souped-up” racetrack or a “speed bias.” Win in a slow time, à la California Chrome in the Kentucky Derby, and it’s due to a slow pace and/or a subpar three-year-old crop.

    Look, there’s no denying that California Chrome’s Derby time was on the sluggish side. Since 1950, only Cannonade (1974) recorded a slower winning time on a “fast” track than trainer Art Sherman’s stable star did on the first Saturday in May. 

    And the speed-figure boys concur with the Teletimer.

    Len Ragozin of The Sheets gave Chrome a 7 ¼ — just slightly better than Cannonade’s 8 (lower numbers represent faster times on both The Sheets and Jerry Brown’s Thoro-Graph).

    Brisnet awarded California Chrome a 103 speed figure (well below the 10-year Derby par of 107), while Beyer and his team gave the son of Lucky Pulpit a 97 — the lowest figure for a Derby or Preakness winner since the Beyer figs were first published in the Daily Racing Form in 1992.

    In fact, Beyer was so distressed by Chrome’s lack of speed that he condemned the entire thoroughbred breed.

    “This slow time is not merely an indication the current crop of 3-year-olds is subpar; it can be seen as an indictment of the modern American thoroughbred,” Beyer wrote in the Washington Post immediately after the Derby.

    Now, I’m not a Beyer basher; in truth, I think he has a point (albeit one better made by the Belmont Stakes, in which no winner has cracked the 2:30 mark since 2009). Still, isn’t the angst a bit much?

    After all, I remember reading the same type of stuff about Triple Crown champ Seattle Slew. Only three horses — the aforementioned Cannonade (1974), Canonero II (1971) and Dust Commander (1970) — recorded slower winning times in the Kentucky Derby in the 15 years preceding Slew’s victory in 1977. And Dust Commander competed on an “off” track.

    What’s more, there is no evidence to suggest that a fast Derby time — at least a fast raw Derby time — leads to future success… quite the contrary, actually.

    Of the 20 swiftest fast-track Kentucky Derby winners (based on raw times), only seven found similar success in Baltimore in the Preakness Stakes, producing a $1.64 net return on a $2 investment. In all other fast-track Derbies, the winner went on to capture the Black-eyed Susans 40 percent of the time and return backers a robust 25 cents on the dollar.


    Number: 20
    Winners: 7
    Rate: 35.0%
    Return: $32.70
    $2 Net: $1.64
    ROI: -18.3%


    Number: 37
    Winners: 15
    Rate: 40.5%
    Return: $92.80
    $2 Net: $2.51
    ROI: +25.4%

    As for the “slow” pace… well, that’s hooey too. According to my pace figures, several recent editions of the Most Exciting Two Minutes in Sports have featured softer relative opening splits — like the 2008 edition, the 2009 edition and the 2011 edition.

    Furthermore, California Chrome’s -7 early speed ration (ESR) in this year’s Run for the Roses is the third-best since 1996, behind only Smarty Jones (-9 in 2004) and Funny Cide (-7 in 2003).

    Both those horses went on to win the Preakness Stakes.

    Is California Chrome the greatest racehorse to ever look through a bridle? Of course not. But he’s not exactly Zippy Chippy either… regardless of what one’s watch says.

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