Friday, April 15, 2011

Ranking the Triple Crown Winners, Part III

In the fifteen year span that this survey covers, we've had 7 different horses win the Derby and Preakness, plus two more that won the Preakness and Belmont. (Oddly, nobody's pulled off the Derby-Belmont duo since Thunder Gulch in 1995.) Instinctively, you'd think these seven horses would be near the top of the list. After all, they won two of the three races that it takes to make up this list, and couldn't have been bad, right?

Well, we think that four of the seven were something less than spectacular. As we noted a couple of years ago, some Triple Crown bids were more accidental than anything else, be it weak competition, odd circumstances or what have you. And since we're looking at a horse's entire career, which includes the strength of the competition, latent ability of the horse, and total accomplishments, we think that a these guys don't stack up as well as others that follow.

Note that we're out of the realm of garbage here--each of the next four horses won an Eclipse Award. Heck, one of them won Horse of the Year. But when we get to our next post, honestly ask yourself if you'd take any of these four over the next 5 horses on the list. We say no.

Tier IV: The Less Good Dual-Classic Winners

23. War Emblem (2002 Derby and Preakness)
Other wins of note: Haskell (G1), Illinois Derby (G2)
Other placings of note: None.

The ultimate all-or-nothing horse: this guy ran 13 times, winning 7 times, and in his other 6 starts, finishing 7th, 5th, 6th, 8th, 5th, 8th. And when he lost, he generally was drilled: his losses were by a combined 68 1/2 lengths, and only one of them was by fewer than 4 lengths. He was a front-runner that if he broke well and had good tactical position, was extremely dangerous. If he didn't, then he was up the track.

Now yes, I'll concede that he won 4 graded stakes races, including 3 Grade 1's. Does that mean he deserves to be better than #23 on this list? Absolutely not. Let's look at those stakes wins:
  • Illinois Derby. He gets an uncontested lead through moderate fractions (48 1/5 half, 1:13 3/4 mile), and runs home like a loose-on-the-lead leader should. His only competition in this race was Repent, who had one race in 6 months and showed it.
  • Kentucky Derby. Dismissed by the entire free world at 20-1, he goes to the front in a lead that's never contested and has plenty left for the stretch. But let's note something--the track this day had ridiculous rail- and front-runner's biases. Possibly to offset the prior year's Derby track, which favored deep closers and produced times that would be rivaled at Ruidoso Downs, Churchill Downs for 2002 Derby Day was a front-runner's paradise. The first three finishers basically ran 1-2-3 the entire way around the track, and some pundits even noted afterwards that possibly the best horse was Medaglia d'Oro, who closed to run 4th.
  • Preakness. Is actually pressed on the lead this time but wins anyway because he gets a good trip (Victor Espinoza never got enough credit for the good work he did on this horse) and because his toughest competition is 45-1 shot Magic Weisner, who isn't any good. This was winning by default.
  • Haskell. Freshened off his drubbing in the Belmont, he breaks well and beats a field that includes Magic Weisner and nobody else. Again, no competition yields a victory.
Now yes, there is something to be said for having the early speed and stamina to win those races. But look what happened in his final two starts when he faced real competition: he was nowhere. His Pacific Classic was absolutely atrocious, as his fellow 3yo Came Home absolutely trounced him. And he was never a real factor in the Breeders Cup Classic.

You'd be hard-pressed to argue that this guy was the best 3-year old in his year: Came Home beat him easily in the Pacific Classic, Medaglia d'Oro beat him easily in the Belmont and Classic, and even Perfect Drift went on to have a useful (if frustrating) career. Even if he had returned for his 4 year old season--which he should have, given the fact that he was a useless sire, as he refused to have sex with the mares--we think he would not have fared well.

22. Charismatic (1999 Derby and Preakness)
Other wins of note: Lexington (G2)
Other placings of note: 3rd in Belmont (G1)

After the 1999 Santa Anita Derby, this guy was sporting a record of 2 wins, 2 seconds and 3 thirds in 13 starts. His wins were something of a joke: a win in a maiden claimer at Hollywood Park the prior November, and a win by disqualification in a claiming race that February at Santa Anita. In his 13 starts, he had never topped a 95 GSF, and looked like a hanger-on who had just clunked up for a non-threatening 4th in the SA Derby at 45-1.

We're not sure what happened next, but some switch flipped, because this guy went on an absolute tear after the Santa Anita Derby--he won the Lexington, Derby and Preakness in succession, at 12-1, 31-1 and 8-1 respectively, jumping 14 speed figure points and looking like an absolute house on fire. Was it getting off the Bute? Was it getting out of California? Who knows. But finally the horse's potential was realized and he became a Triple Crown contender entering the '99 Belmont, redeeming the troubled Chris Antley along the way.

We won't repeat what happened there--the injury mid-stretch, Antley jumping off the horse and holding his leg, retirement, Antley's later death, etc. That's been done 1000 times. We want to look at a serious question here: how the hell did this guy win Horse of the Year?

Charismatic finished 1999 with 10 starts--remarkable considering he didn't race after the Belmont--which included 4 wins and 3 other finishes in the money. The 4 wins were in a claiming race, the Lexington, Derby and Belmont. That's not a bad season...but that's the best anyone could do? Well, it was something of a goofy year. Here were the other options:
  • Daylami. Winner of the BC Turf in a romp, he also won 3 Grade 1 turf races in Europe and was probably the best horse to run this year. But he only had one start in America.
  • Silverbulletday. The dominant 3 year old filly of the year, we were never that impressed with her because she never ran against the best horses in her class (Excellent Meeting and Three Ring). Still, through the end of August, she had won 7 of 8 starts, including the Kentucky Oaks, Ashland and Alabama, with her only loss being an odd attempt to take on Charismatic in the Belmont Stakes. Her end of the year losses in the Beldame and BC Distaff probably doomed her campaign.
  • Artax. The champion sprinter who set 3 track records and won the BC Sprint in a romp. He also lost half a dozen times to proven mediocrities.
  • Soaring Softly. Now this is who we would have voted for. After being completely unsuccessful on dirt, trainer Jimmy Toner switched this filly to the grass, where she promptly won 7 of 8 starts, including the Sheepshead Bay, Flower Bowl, and BC Filly Turf. She was the most dominant performer of the American-based horses in her respective class by a lot--nobody was even close to her.
While it would have been a first, a filly turfer should have been HOTY in 1999. Because the voters couldn't see that is was an odd year, we ended up with the winner being a horse that didn't win a race after mid-May. Ridiculous.

21. Funny Cide (2003 Derby and Preakness)
Other wins of note: Jockey Club Gold Cup (G1); Excelsior, Dominion Day (G3s)
Other placings of note: 2nd in Wood Memorial (G1), Louisiana Derby, Saratoga BC, MassCap (G2s); 3rd in Belmont, Haskell, Donn, Suburban (G1s), New Orleans Cap (G3), W.D. Schaefer (G3)

Unlike a lot of other horses on this list, we know exactly how good Funny Cide was because he had a full career, running 38 times. The answer? Pretty good, at times very good. He won 11 starts, finished in the money 25 times, and was generally competitive at the highest level as a 3 and 4 year old.

The New York bred gelding showed some potential his juvenile season, winning 3 state-bred races, including the putative championship for 2yo state breds in October. Rested and sent to the South for the winter, he resurfaced in the Holl Bull, when he ran a non-threatening 5th and then in the Louisiana Derby where he ran a decent 3rd and showed some persistence in the stretch. He was then shipped back to New York for the Wood, where he was an afterthought to the Empire Maker Hype Machine, and while he lost, he ran a great 2nd, only losing by a length and a half.

The chatter after the race was ebullient for Empire Maker--the trainer and jockey said he was barely asked for anything and could have won by open lengths. Maybe. What everyone did was ignore that Funny Cide had clearly made a leap from also-ran to serious Derby contender.

Come the First Saturday in May, anyone with two eyes and knowledge of Arabic numbers could see that if you ranked the runners by last GSF, the order and commensurate odds were:
  • Empire Maker, 5-2
  • Ten Most Wanted, 6-1
  • Funny Cide, 13-1
  • Peace Rules, 6-1
  • Indian Express, 10-1
  • Buddy Gil, 7-1
So despite being clearly one of the 3 fastest horses in the race based on his last effort, he was somewhat dismissed at 13-1. Come Derby Day, he proved his backers right--he ran back to his Wood, held off an Empire Maker that was suffering from a foot bruise, and won a gritty victory. It was one of those wins where afterwards, everyone was surprised that absolutely nobody had been talking about the winner.

Funny Cide backed up his Derby win with a romp in the Preakness...sort of. Only one horse of note showed up for the Preakness (Peace Rules), who tired early and was never a factor. This set up what looked like a great Belmont: Funny Cide going for the TC, coming back against Empire Maker and Ten Most Wanted, plus new shooter Dynever. He never had a real chance. In a ridiculously sloppy track, Jose Santos sent him to the lead, Empire Maker tracked him cautiously, and took over at the top of the stretch to beat Ten Most Wanted. Funny Cide was a well-beaten 3rd, and the streak of no TC winners continued.

Funny Cide never quite got his mojo back to that elite level after the Belmont. He returned in the Haskell where he was beaten handily by Peace Rules and Sky Mesa, then was oddly laid off until the BC Classic, where he run next to last. His 4 year old season was actually typical of a horse that straddles that borderline between Grade 1 and Grade 2. He was competitive in some stakes, winning the prestigious Jockey Club Gold Cup and running well in the MassCap and Saratoga BC, but was annihilated in the BC Classic and was nowhere near the talented Saint Liam in the New Orleans Handicap. He had a similar season as a 5 year old, and then spent the last 18 months of his career knocking around in state-bred ranks.

There is absolutely nothing wrong with this career. Everyone--everyone--would be excited to own a horse like Funny Cide, who tried hard, had tactical speed, was generally healthy, and picked up a lot of checks. And for about 7 weeks, he was the Little Guy that stood up to the likes of Juddmonte Farms and won the Derby and Preakness. It was a neat run and he was a neat horse. Just not a great one.

20. Smarty Jones (2004 Derby and Preakness)
Other wins of note: Arkansas Derby (G2)
Other placings of note: 2nd in Belmont (G1)

We're going to take some flak for this ranking, given this horse's record was 8 wins and 1 second in 9 starts, and his one loss came by under 2 lengths at the end of a 12 furlong race. But we have never, ever, ever been Smarty Jones fans. This guy caught lightning in a bottle and took advantage of some odd conditions to run up this record. Let's go through it.
  • His first three starts are a maiden race at Philly Park, a Pennsylvania state-breds stakes at Philly Park, and the ungraded Count Fleet stakes at the inner dirt of Aqueduct. His speed figures are fairly impressive for a horse starting his career (84-105-97), but he beats zero horses of consequence.
  • He ships to Arkansas for three prep races for the Derby. (Modern trainers, take note--this is not a bad way to prep a horse.) He holds on for a victory in the Southwest against nobody, then puts up impressive wins in the Rebel and Arkansas Derby. Oddly, he needs the Arkansas Derby win to actually get into the Kentucky Derby because while he was 5-for-5 going into that race, all of his prior races hadn't been in graded stakes races.
  • He comes into the Kentucky Derby in a slightly goofy year where nobody looks particularly enticing. Lion Heart was well regarded from out west, but had just lost the Blue Grass to The Cliff's Edge, who nobody particularly loved. Birdstone was the good two year old who flopped in his starts before the Derby. The Wood, Florida Derby and Santa Anita Derby all had odd winners--the Wood was won by the late-developing Tapit, who was unseasoned and not particularly fast, Castledale won the SA Derby at 30-1, and Friends Lake had won the Florida Derby in an upset and was then put in mothballs for two months.
  • Smarty Jones became the 4-1 favorite by default, and then got a gift from the gods: the skies opened 45 minutes before the race went off, turning a slightly muddy track into a pea soup that nobody liked besides him, as Lion Heart lead for a mile, then Smarty Jones passed him in the stretch as everyone else spun their wheels. Of the 19 horses that ran, 17 ran a speed figure worse than their last race. Nobody closed into the moderate pace. The horse basically won the race by default and proved nothing in victory.
  • As unimpressive as his Derby win was, his Preakness win made up for it in spades. Now getting a fast track against the 2-3 finishers in the Derby plus talented new shooters Rock Hard Ten and Eddington, Smarty Jones sat off a moderate pace, cut the corner at the top of the stretch, and absolutely exploded down the lane to a 12-length victory. We've seen a lot of impressive performances in racing. This was in the top 5.
  • And then came the Belmont. We won't get into what transpired in the race because it's been done to death, but will never forget being there that day with 120,000 others on a gorgeous June day. At the top of the stretch, the entire crowd--even us--was on their feet screaming for the horse. When Birdstone passed him, EVERY SINGLE PERSON went silent. It was as if the entire stadium was hit with the mute button. Nobody could believe it--not even the guy sitting a row in front of us who had a $20 win ticket on Birdstone. It was the quietest moment at a sporting event we've ever attended.
And then...that was it. Smarty Jones never ran again, never took on older horses, never tried to see if his form could hold after the Belmont. The Eclipse voters rightly gave the Horse of the Year award to Ghostzapper, annoyed by his failure to run after June, and the horse went from national sensation to after thought in 4 months.

So yeah, maybe we're punishing this guy for not having a more ambitious campaign. But we were never impressed with him besides his Preakness. His Derby was a complete toss-out race (witness Birdstone coming back and running like a new horse in the Belmont), and everything prior to the Derby was against third-rate competition. If you want to be considered great, you have to run against the best and win repeatedly. He tried twice, and won once. That's just not good enough for us. And when we get to the next series of horses, ask yourself who you would take in a match race at 10 furlongs between the two. We think that almost everyone would agree that they would take everyone horse in the next batch ahead of Smarty Jones.

Coming up next week: Good horses that hinted at greatness.


sbloomer said...

All Along was a filly turfer who was HOY. But you are right about Soaring Softly in a crappy race year.

Anonymous said...

Smarty Jones was a freak running above his prefered distances. Ran a 2 flat mile and a quarter in Belmont, was a sheet freak. Wouldve been a great sprinter and beat much better than Afleet Alex and Brown and them ever beat.

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