Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Ranking the Triple Crown Race Winners, Part I

Since starting this blog in 2007, we've done a fair amount of horse racing coverage on the Triple Crown and Breeders' Cup, plus a smattering of Saratoga and other issues and awards. We've made predictions, analyzed races, previewed whats coming up and handed out some awards.

Over the next two months, we're going to do some historical reminiscing and ranking by reviewing the 36 horses that have win Triple Crown races since 1995 and rank them from worst to first. While doing it, we'll look at the horse's place in recent TC history, discuss some old races and see if we can glean anything instructive for this year's Triple Crown races. And hopefully have some fun in the process.

To answer two preliminary questions:

Why the 1995 cutoff date? For one thing, 1996 is the year we followed racing in earnest. Additionally, it's the year Bob Baffert appeared in the national scene with Cavonnier running 2nd in the Derby. If the early 80s were dominated by Woody Stephens and the late 80s/early 90s were defined by Wayne Lukas, nobody has defined the last 15 years of racing (especially the TC) like Baffert. It only seems appropriate to confine it to this era.

How are you ranking these? Mostly on career accomplishments, but we'll also reward horses for talent and potential when appropriate and upgrade or downgrade based on yhe strength of their competition. For example, War Emblem won 2 TC races and the Haskell, which is impressive, whereas Barbaro only won one Grade I. But is there a doubt as to which horse people thought was superior? We're here to draw those lines.

Let's start with the worst and work our way up. You'll notice that many of these bottom dwellers have something in common, besides their large odds.

Tier I: The Shockers

36. Da'Tara (2008 Belmont)
Other wins of note: None.
Other placings of note: 2nd in Barbaro Stakes (ungraded)

Well, somebody had to be DAFL. There's a lot of not-any-good horses at the bottom of the pile here, so why was Da'Tara the pick for the worst? Three reasons:

(1) He did absolutely nothing besides winning the Belmont. And that's about as generous an assessment as I can give this horse's career. He ran an okay second in the Barbaro Stakes, an ungraded two-turn race on the Preakness undercard, but his other stakes races were beyond horrible:
  • 9th in the Florida Derby, losing to Big Brown by over 23 lengths;
  • 5th in the Derby Trial;
  • 7th in the Jim Dandy, losing by over 24 lengths;
  • 5th in the Travers;
  • 6th in the Jerome, losing by over 18 lengths to Tale of Ekati, who he beat in the Belmont;
  • Allowance losses to utter nobodies such as Pictural, Dream Maestro and Let it Rock; and
  • Finishing DAFL in Rachel Alexandra's Woodward win.
(2) He ran the Belmont in an amazingly slow time of 2:29.65 over a fast track. For that effort, he was given a Gowanus Speed Figure of 99, which Steve Crist dubbed "generous". Had he run in Secretariat's Belmont, he would have lost by a mere 28 lengths. (Note: in fairness, that would have gotten him second place.)

(3) He beat absolutely nobody of note in the Belmont. Second place finisher Denis of Cork never ran again. Third place finishers Anak Nakal and Ready's Echo (there was a dead-heat for 3rd) won a combined 5 of their 32 career starts. Big Brown didn't finish. The only horse that accomplished anything else and ran behind him was Tale of Ekati, who won the 2008 Cigar Mile on a disqualification.

So how did he win a Triple Crown race? Simple--nobody else showed up and he had early speed. It happens every day at racetracks across the world. And it happened in the 2008 Belmont. You know when else it happened?

35. Commendable (2000 Belmont)
Other wins of note: None.
Other placings of note: 2d in Super Derby (G1), 3rd in Travers, (G1)

The 2000 Belmont had about as much juice as a late February Columbia-Yale basketball game. The much ballyhooed Derby winner, Fusaichi Pegasus, lost the Preakness and was skipping the Belmont. So was Red Bullet, the upset winner of the Preakness. Who were the top shooters coming into a fairly dull race?
  • Aptitude, who ran second in the Derby and third in the Wood Memorial. Unfortunately, he was a dead closer with zero wins in big races. Yet, he was under 2-1 come post time.
  • Impeachment, who had run non-threatening clunk-up 3rds in the Derby and Preakness. Somehow, he was bet heavily, even though nobody thought he could win.
  • Wheelaway, who menaced at the top of the stretch in the Derby and faded badly. I'm not sure why this horse was heavily backed.
  • Curule, who was trained in Dubai. That at least made him interesting, if a stupid reason to bet him.
  • Postponed and Unshaded, who ran 1-2 in the Peter Pan. These were the most interesting horses in the field.
So yeah, not exactly a murderer's row of horses. And oddly, they were all closers. The race had a speedball (Hugh Hefner), a stalker (Commendable) and 9 horses that were closers or deep closers. So what happened? Exactly what you'd expect--Hugh Hefner set a fast early pace that nobody chased, Commendable sat in second while running fairly pedestrian splits, Commendable got first run on the rest of the field, and had enough left in reserve to hold them off in the stretch.

What makes this the second worst horse to win a Triple Crown race? The rest of his race record. Prior to the Belmont, he had finished in the money one time--when he broke his maiden race. In the 6 races between his maiden and Belmont victories, he ran 4th-5th-4th-4th-4th-4th-17th. He had already lost to half the field in either the Lexington or Derby before the Belmont. But this is why they say "pace makes the race."

Commendable wasn't any good after the Belmont either, but he was marginally better than Da'Tara. He was a non-threatening 4th in the Dwyer and finished next to last in the Haskell, before running a so-so 3rd in the Travers (behind Unshaded) and a decent second in the Super Derby (behind HOTY Tiznow). Then he was injured and retired and never heard from again. Until this column.

34. Sarava (2002 Belmont)
Other wins of note: Sir Barton Stakes (ungraded)
Other placings of note: None.

Put it this way: you know that Da'Tara and Commendable had to be pretty bad when a horse that won the Belmont at 70-1 is above them on the list. He get this elevated ranking because he actually won another stakes race (albeit an ungraded one) and because he beat a pretty good horse in Medaglia d'Oro in the Belmont.

Other than that? There are no credentials to crow about. Not only was the Belmont his only graded stakes win, it was his only start in a graded stakes race. After winning the Belmont he was transferred to Bob Baffert's barn, who didn't even try to get him in a crummy grade 3 race like the Cornhusker Handicap. That says it all.

33. Drosselmeyer (2010 Belmont)
Other wins of note: None.
Other placings of note: 2nd in Dwyer (G2), 3rd in Louisiana Derby (G2)

We're putting this guy above those three because he's active and still has a shot to be a decent horse, so it's a bit speculative, we concede. (Although he ran 3rd in his first start this year, which isn't a good sign.) This guy knocked around in several Derby preps, winning none of them, but at least being competitive while running slowly. When absolutely no horse in the 2010 Belmont felt like going 12 furlongs, he hung around the longest and beat out perpetual hanger Fly Down to take the race. Let's hope that he develops a little bit this year.

That's now the four worst winners, all of which won the Belmont. Coincidence? Not at all. This is one of the results of breeders emphasizing speed and precocity over stamina.

32. Mine That Bird (2009 Derby)
Other wins of note: Grey Stakes (G3)
Other placings of note: 2nd in Preakness, 3rd in Belmont and West Virginia Derby (G3)

Mine That Bird was 50-1 when he won the Derby. He should have been 150-1.

When his career began, Mine That Bird was all the rage in Canada, where he won four races including the Grey Stakes on Polytrack, never topping 79 on the Speed Figure scale. Despite being transferred to Dick Mandella's barn--the same man who once won FOUR Breeders Cup races in one day--he was dismissed at 24-1 in the Breeders Cup Juvenile and ran to his odds, finishing last. He was then transferred to the completely unknown Bennie Woolley, who ran him in two races at Sunland Park in New Mexico, won neither, and never went higher than an 81 speed figure. He only got into the Derby thanks to his win in the Grey Stakes, which gave him ample graded stakes money to make the cut.

Then I Want Revenge scratched, it poured on Derby day, Calvin Borel took the rail home, and the rest is history.

Mine That Bird followed the Derby win up with a second place showing in the Preakness (under Mike Smith--Borel ditched him for Rachel Alexandra), which we think was actually his best race. With a less than ideal trip, he ran a very, very game 2nd to a better horse than anyone he faced in the Derby. He walked into the Belmont as the 5-4 favorite, got a horrible ride from Borel, and finished third behind Summer Bird and Dunkirk. His next start, a 3rd place finish in the West Virginia Derby, was the last time he finished in the money, as he lost his last 6 starts by over 50 combined lengths.

How the hell did this horse win the Derby and basically get good for only 5 weeks of his career? At the time, we noted that there was some precedent for this:
After Mine That Bird's shocking victory in the Kentucky Derby, everyone has rushed to try to compare his victory to either Giacomo's win in 2005, Cannero II's victory in 1971, or Doneraile's 91-1 upset in 1913...

Cannonero II is an interesting comparison, because like MTB, he was dismissed based on losing races at crappier tracks (in Venezuela, for crying out loud), and shocked everyone by being better than thought on Derby Day. He carried this over to the Preakness, before flopping in the Belmont and having an undistinguished career afterward.
So congrats to Mine That Bird. You're the Canadian answer to the greatest Venezuelan horse to run in the Triple Crown.

31. Giacomo (2005 Derby)
Other wins of note: San Diego Handicap (G2)
Other placings of note: 2nd in Hollywood Futurity (G1) and San Felipe (G2), 3rd in Preakness, Goodwood (G2) and Strub (G2)

Every year the handicap and 3yo divisions are rife are horses that fit the same description as Giacomo: deep closers, bred to be route runners, have no tactical speed, can't really compete at the top level but are run there anyway, often good enough to clunk up for a spot in the money, and will win on its best day and the rest of the field's worst. This is a perfectly acceptable way to spend most of your career in graded stakes company, win a couple of races and $500,000 in the process while never really being that good a horse. The quintessential example of this horse was Perfect Drift. And Giacomo fit this description to a tee.

The wrinkle: one of those races where he had his "best day and the rest of the field's worst" was the Kentucky Derby.

Had Afleet Alex gotten a better trip and ride, he would have won and Giacomo would have finished second. And Giacomo's career line would read 16 starts, 2 wins, 3 places, 5 shows, and about $1.3 million in earnings. And that would have been about right--it's roughly the same career that Steppenwolfer, Sunriver, Invisible Ink and Eddington had. He was consistently okay--he rarely ran horribly, but rarely ran very well. He didn't run particularly well on Derby Day. The catch was that nobody else did. And when you run your regular race and 19 others fail to do anything, you will win. And that consistency is why he's above Mine That Bird and the other 4 complete flukes.

Coming up in a week or so: Part II, the horses that whose careers we expected more from.

1 comment:

rk said...

this is a terrific idea! Thank you for this. I'm really looking forward to the rest of this series Angelo.

It's finally sping! Opening day in a week, Derby Peps in full force, a $10,000,000 race tomorrow morning, all is becoming right in the world.....