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By Thomas Chambers
Hindsight must be heeded. This is more true in Thoroughbred handicapping than in many other endeavors. It provides lessons and angles that must be understood and respected.
The victory by Mine That Bird in the 135th running of the Kentucky Derby on Saturday certainly gets you to thinking about hindsight. First, you look within. What did I miss? How did I miss it? Why did my handicapping fail me? My own words flashed before my eyes, chiseled into the ageless marble of the World Wide Web. The thing about "chumps" betting the "stupid money." Or the part about it being a pretty ridiculous race "with 20 starters, more a stampede than a nicely developed 10 furlongs." And then there was "And what if it rains?" with something about the difficulty of a horse getting so much mud in its face.
I never felt more or better prepared for a Kentucky Derby than this one. Aside from the winner, I nailed it. The money lost is just now beginning to fade from consciousness, I think, but the ignobility of this horse winning this race continues its gnaw.
I get some solace from Andrew Beyer, he of the Speed Figures I used as my fundamental factor in tossing MTB. Randy Moss calls it a perfect storm, and I guess it was. Why are there so many perfect storms lately? It was a monumental upset, the very word "upset" coined as we use it today from the only loss the legendary Man o' War ever suffered - at the doing of the colt Upset.
My other shred of hope comes from the fact that I wouldn't pick him before the Derby, I wouldn't pick him Derby Day, I wouldn't pick him as he stood in the Churchill Downs grilled chicken winner's circle, and I might never pick him as long as he runs counterclockwise anywhere in this world. Unless he accomplishes something special down the road, such as victory in the Preakness or Belmont or Travers or Breeders Cup, this race will forever more be considered a fluke.
Here are the "explanations" for the win:
1. Mine That Bird had the Birdstone/Grindstone pedigree. Same as Summer Bird, another big longshot who finished sixth, which was about as well as you'd expect from him in this race. Fine. Ironically, a documentary on public television Sunday told of what happens to racehorses after they are no longer "useful." It told one story of a horse with direct bloodlines to A.P. Indy and Seattle Slew who, just when they would be ready to give up on him, would win a $1,500 race and a reprieve, on a track so obscure, I couldn't find it or the documentary online. There comes a point where performance needs to show, no matter the bloodlines. MTB had never shown a performance to warrant serious handicapping attention in a Kentucky Derby.
2. Calvin "Bo-Rail" Borel gave him a great ride. I believe Borel's artistry was the single biggest reason Mine That Bird won. Nobody knows Churchill Downs like Borel does. And yet, the other jockeys - including Gomez, Bejarano, Prado, Desormeaux (he was on the rail for a short bit but made the typical too-early Desormeaux move), Coa, Velazquez and Smith - didn't know the rail was playing fast all day? And what about Robby Albarado? You'll find him at Churchill on the dog days of its summer meet. Robby didn't know?
In watching the replay, the rail hole looked different. You could tell Borel knew it and it appeared nobody else did. All the others avoided the rail like it was poison, and paid the price in the sludge of lanes two and out. Perhaps expecting them to shut off Borel is too much to ask, but they all gave away the rail like it was Christmas. Give Borel credit, but the other "top jocks" tactically failed. By the way, Borel and MTB bumped Join in the Dance to break free on the rail. There should have been a mild inquiry, but with NBC ready to pull the plug on the whole thing, you think the stewards are gonna go there? They should have.
3. Mine That Bird was sitting on a big race. How could you tell? While Summer Bird was climbing the Beyer ladder, scoring a 99 while finishing third only 1-1/4 lengths back in the Grade III - should be a Grade II - Arkansas Derby, MTB could register nothing higher than an 81 and an 80 in his two previous starts at Sunland Park, not exactly Saratoga. His racing times were average, and his workouts were nothing spectacular. His Speed Rating/Track Variant calculation was near the bottom of the field. He won a Grade III in Canada as a two-year-old and won Canada's 2-year-old of the year award. I still maintain that graded earnings as a 2-year-old should not carry the weight that they do. Some weight, sure, but that's all MTB had to do to get in this race. While his Derby victory was visually impressive, his time of 2:02.66 was middling.
4. He was the better horse that day. Obviously, and with a better jockey, too. But the loss of Quality Road days before and I Want Revenge the morning of the Derby markedly changed the complexion of the race. And what about The Pamplemousse and Square Eddie? That's a lot of talent on the DL. It brought the field together in class and leveled the competition. That coupled with his opponents' granting Borel the mono-rail, MTB was allowed to join the posse.
5. The other horses had just as much chance to win. This is where the stampede of the Derby comes in. One reason there are so many is that, surprise, it increases betting handle. While the aforementioned stupid money swells the pools, it also knocks down the odds on the longest longshots. Mine That Bird should have been 100-1 or more. But with the people who have mynah birds as pets or once visited the coal mine at the Museum of Science and Industry, you'll get those odds knocked down.
It is too many horses - and a sloppy track makes it worse. I do not look forward to the day that I believe I'm going to see when a big part of the field ends up in one big pileup like a bad start at the Indy 500. General Quarters came out of the race with a mud crusted eye and a nostril full of mud - discovered only when he sneezed after the race and it popped out. Sure, races are run in the slop all the time, but 20 horses can move a lot of mud. Too much. Friesan Fire was heavily jostled and grabbed a quarter and Dunkirk reportedly suffered a number of bumps and scratches after being bumped like a pinball at the start and stumbling a couple of times.
I do not believe the Kentucky Derby is representative of the best the game has to offer. It's an aberration with a field constructed in such a way that it does not let the horses and jockeys do what they do best with speed, tactics, strategy and legitimate luck. The race is insanely difficult if not impossible to handicap. All you can go by is the horses' prep races, which are run in generally good weather conditions, more manageable fields, realistic pace scenarios. The Derby is nothing like those races; it's impossible to truly prep a horse for the conditions of the Derby, wet or dry.
It's a typically overdone American spectacle. But in the context of half-ton or more animals running at high speed, it's also a quest for survival, having little to do with proving who is the best three-year-old in the land on the sport's biggest day.
As so many sporting events in this land have strayed from their basic structure and appeal, from competition to commercial circuses, so too has the Derby. I'll be counting on hindsight in 2010 to help me lay off The Run for the Roses, also known as The Kentucky Derby Presented by Yum Brands.
* Curious. "I feel that he didn't want to go, so I let him relax and finish the race," said jockey Gabriel Saez. "I didn't want to hurt the horse." Saez was aboard Friesan Fire (18th), the favorite, based on his proven form in the slop. I guess this is where Saez falls out of Borel's league. He had a clear shot into the first turn to take the very same magical rail, but didn't quite have the moxie to do it. Yet Friesan was fifth or sixth all the way into the far turn. This guy had that horse completely confused. Oh well. Oh say, what about the millions of dollars that were wagered on Friesan Fire? If I'm Larry Jones, I get a new jockey. Alan Garcia, anyone?
* Derby morning scratch I Want Revenge is expected to be out for several months and probably the rest of the year. Ankle ligament damage. If he doesn't respond to therapy, the injury is career-threatening.
* Dubai shipper Desert Party, 14th in the Derby, will have a bone chip removed from his left front ankle and is expected to be back in the latter half of the season.
The Path to the Preakness
So what now? It's on to the Preakness at Pimlico on May 16, where things seem so much more normal. For many hours after the race, MTB's trainer said the Preakness was out. Then on Monday he said it's a go. Race probables as of this writing are: Big Drama, Conservative, Flying Private, General Quarters, Hull, Mine That Bird, Musket Man, Papa Clem, Pioneerof the Nile, Sky Gate, Take the Points, Terrain and Tone It Down. Field maximum is 14. Changes to the field right up until entries are common, so we'll see.
Fabulous filly Rachel Alexandra, winner of the Kentucky Oaks by an easy 20-1/4 lengths(!), was purchased this week by Jess Jackson and Stonestreet Stables and Harold McCormick. There's a chance she'll run in the Preakness. But she'll have to be supplemented and the field is on the full side, so she'll need some luck to get in.
Peter Pan Handle
In what is often a prep for the Belmont Stakes, seven are entered in the Peter Pan Stakes (GII) at Belmont. Charitable Man is the expected favorite with former Derby hopefuls Imperial Council, Hello Broadway and Stately Character also running. Rounding out the field are Brave Victory, Scorewithcater and Al Khali.
Feature at Arlington Saturday is the $50,000 Chester House Stakes for three years old and up at 1-1/6 miles on the turf. Morning line has Arctic Cry, Telling and Tiger Woodman the favorites. If it keeps raining, don't be surprised if they take it off the turf.
Thomas Chambers is the Beachwood's man on the rail. He brings you TrackNotes every Friday. He welcomes your comments.