Wednesday, April 29, 2015

On this Wednesday before the 2015 Kentucky Derby, here’s my secret tip on how to pick a horse who can successfully negotiate 10 furlongs for the first time in his life. Yes, speed is important. And equally important is the breeding to go a distance. Race record is most important of all, especially the proven ability to run a final quarter faster than the other quarters of the race.

But here’s something that experts never talk about. The Kentucky Derby is almost always won by a horse whose dam was a good racehorse. In fact, the racing quality of the dam may be the most significant factor in picking a horse to run well in the Derby. Notice I don’t say “win.” Just “run well.” In a 20 horse field the most you can realistically hope to choose is a horse who will perform well.

With the glaring exception of California Chrome last year, almost every winner in modern history has been a horse whose dam has performed well herself on the racetrack. Looking at the history of the race you’ll find an occasional winner with an unraced dam or one whose dam had a brief (but usually promising) career. In general, the racing quality of the dam plays a surprisingly significant role in the success of the horse the first time he’s asked to run a distance.

It could be coincidence, but there equally could be a real reason for it. Winning at any distance, but particularly the longer ones, requires toughness and determination, not just speed. A good racing mare might be expected to pass that on to her offspring.

So what does that mean for this year? Unfortunately the likely favorite American Pharoah is out of a mare who failed on the racetrack. Upstart’s dam was unraced. Mubtaahij’s dam failed to win in nine starts.

Among the top choices, Frosted is out of Fast Cookie, the winner of more than 500 thousand. Firing Line is out of the good stakes winner Little Girl Blues. Materiality is from a stakes winner named Wildwood Flower. Dortmund is out of a stakes winner named Our Josephina.

But remember this: a great horse can rise above anything. Secretariat’s dam never won. American Pharoah, if he truly is great, can rise above his mother’s racing record.

Wednesday, March 4, 2015

I love this time of year!

For my money (figure of speech because I rarely bet) the first week in March is the most exciting time of the year in Thoroughbred horse racing, more so than the week leading up to the Kentucky Derby. By Derby Week we may not know who’s going to win the big race, but we generally know who could be great and who will never be. The “could be great” crowd of three-year-olds is pretty small by that week and may be nonexistent after the race.

It’s a much bigger crowd at this point, but it’s probably going to get a lot smaller by this coming weekend so I’m spending time savoring the possibilities. There are still some unbeaten horses of quality and a few more once-beaten who can be forgiven for their losses. The next Secretariat or Man o’ War could be in the group. Okay, probably not, but we don’t know until they prove otherwise.

Saturday’s Tampa Bay Derby has two of the “until they prove otherwise” possibilities. Carpe Diem, who cost $1.6 million as a yearling, has won two of his three starts. But the sole loss came in the $2 million Breeders’ Cup Juvenile, puncturing his reputation as a possible super horse. Still, he closed well to be second and is, by all standards, bred to go the classic distances.

He’ll face another horse who hasn’t yet proved he isn’t great. Ocean Knight, who cost a mere $320,000 as a yearling, is unbeaten in two starts. He hasn’t faced top level stakes company yet, so a major question will be answered Saturday. He is a son of the great Curlin, the winner of $10 million, able to get the classic distances and then some, and now a great source for stamina at stud. A lot of us would be thrilled to see Curlin become the sire of a great horse.

Probably the most interesting horse in the great-or-not showdown this weekend is Dortmund. He won his first two starts as a two-year in spectacular fashion, then won two stakes races through determination as much as speed. In his last start, Dortmund did what horses—especially young ones—never do: he came back to win after being passed in the stretch. He didn’t show breathtaking speed, but his level of fortitude is remarkable Dortmund remains a candidate for greatness, at least until Saturday’s San Felipe Stakes at Santa Anita.  I love this time of year!