May 5, 2016
Thursday of Derby week is a long day. If you have a horse in either the Oaks or the Derby you work to spend today distracted...maybe a bourbon tour, maybe a farm tour, just something to distract you from the time to post. At this point, all of the preparations are complete. Your horse has paddock schooled--a tour to the Churchill Downs paddock to get comfortable with their surroundings. You may do it once more, but otherwise you run the race in your head...and then you run it again, and again and again.
There is an expression that "pace makes race." What this means is how quickly the race is run by the horses in front will dictate who has the best chance to win. An honest paced race has horses clicking off 12 second furlongs--travelling 1/8 mile in 12 seconds--thus 24 second quarter miles, 48 second half miles, etc. A pace that is a few seconds faster or slower will dictate who has the best chance to win--a pace horse, a stalker or a closer.
Horses are herd animals and the race is the three act play of their herd dynamics. They develop their herd confidence during their early years--their time playing in fields competing for pecking order. As we raise horses we interject horsemanship, the relationship building between horse (prey) and human (predator). It is an amazing dance whereby horses build a relationship and willingness to work for humans. It is this relationship, of human and horse, that conquered nations, cultivated land, and truly led us to the modern era.
I share this backstory to provide context for what is happening during the first 20 seconds of the race--act one, where it will be won or lost for many of the horses. When the gates spring open horses leap into stride and reach their top speed (35mph) in three jumps! It is the jockey's job to make split second decisions on how the race is unfolding, and how their horse is travelling (anxious, settled, strong, etc).
Some horses prefer to race at the lead.These horses don't like sitting behind others; these horses only feel comfortable when they are in the front. Other horses like to "take cover," or stalk, where they run comfortably sitting behind the lead horses, in the cover of the pack. They relax in this position and make a move once they turn for home. Other horses like to come from way off the pace; this is the closer. The rider of this type will take a hold of the reigns and keep the horse to the back of the pack and make one run at the end of the race.
The pace horse wins when there is a slow pace that they can dictate and relax. The stalker wins when there is a good pace and they avoid traffic trouble turning for home, and the closer wins when there is a frantic pace, which tires out the pace, the stalker, and thus the closer is able to get to the wire first as the others have gotten tired.
As I run the race scenario for the Kentucky Oaks, this is how I see it play out:
Cathryn Sophia and Rachel's Valentina are two horses who like to lay close to the pace, maybe not be the pace, but close. They didn't have good luck in the post position draw and will be breaking from post 12 and 11 respectively. This outside post gives them about an eighth of a mile to get in front of the other horses and get to the rail (act one). Here they will likely find Terra Promessa and Paola Queen, all vying for the lead or the inside position.
Lewis Bay and Go Maggie Go should stalk just behind this first flight of horses. Land Over Sea may get lucky and be with these two as well as they race around the turn and down the backstretch (act 2). I don't anticipate a frantic pace, but expect a good honest one...23 seconds for the first quarter...47 seconds for the half mile; which should setup well for the better of the pace horses and the stalkers. At that pace I don't think it will fare well for the closer.
As they reach the top of the stretch (act 3), with a quarter mile to the finish, I believe you will see Paola Queen begin to tire and drop out. The remaining pace horses will be moving and hopefully the flight of the stalkers (Lewis Bay and Go Maggie Go) will begin to advance and sweep past Rachel's Valentina, Cathryn Sophia, and Terra Promessa. There is a good chance a horse like Land Over Sea and Weep No More--both closers--will be flying late, but I don't think they will get up for the win.
I am going to send a follow up email that handicaps each of the horses, but with such a diverse audience I wanted to share some backstory on how races are run so you enjoy the 2 minutes a bit more.
Many of you are aware of a project we have been working on in Kentucky: Horse Country. Our industry publication recently published a great story on it that describes its history and how far we have come.
TDN May Magazine (start on page 43)
I hope you have a great Cinco de Mayo and look forward to your thoughts on this and my Oaks handicapping email to follow.
If you want to feel what it feels like to win the biggest race at Royal Ascot...entertain yourself with these two minutes!