By T. D. Thornton
Sometimes when a film gets released, the reviews are great but box-office numbers are subpar. A rough parallel on the GI Kentucky Derby trail is when a prep race looks visually appealing, but the underlying metrics–final time, internal splits, speed figures, perceived quality of the field–give cause for pause when trying to assess just how good the performance actually was and what it will mean moving forward.
A case in point is Classic Causeway's GII Lambholm South Tampa Bay Derby win Saturday. For the second straight stakes, this final-crop son of Giant's Causeway broke like a rocket and unleashed a grace-under-pressure wire job, kicking clear through the final furlong while wrapped up late by jockey Irad Ortiz, Jr., before galloping out with gusto. The victory was emphatic and gave the impression this Brian Lynch-trained homebred for Kentucky West Racing (Patrick O'Keefe) and Clarke Cooper has yet to scrape the bottom of his stamina reserves.
Classic Causeway has been No. 1 on TDN's Derby Top 12 since Feb. 23, and barring unforeseen circumstances, that's where I plan to rank him next week, too. But he's hardly a universal consensus as the kingpin of the crop, and being so highly rated also means Classic Causeway is fair game to be subjected to scrutiny that lesser-ranked, work-in-progress Derby contenders don't have to endure in mid-March.
Purely from a “how he did it” perspective, there's plenty to like about Classic Causeway's Tampa Derby score. Just like in the Feb. 12 GIII Sam F. Davis S., this energetic chestnut speed-popped the gate like a Quarter Horse, and Ortiz let him range out to the six path before swooping down into the clubhouse bend to tighten the lateral gap by claiming lane two through the first turn.
Classic Causeway was then allowed to drift back out to the four path on the backstretch after an opening quarter of :23.67, but none of his tightly packed pursuers took Ortiz up on his gambit by edging up the wide-open rail (it was a drying-out track over which the innermost paths might have been boggier).
Although Classic Causeway led under pressure, the mid-race tempo wasn't hot. After a second quarter in :24.50 and a third in :25.01, the field approached the top of the lane with a three-wide Classic Causeway motoring along comfortably with every rival in his wake being scrubbed on to keep pace.
Wandering to the five path in upper stretch, Ortiz hand-urged Classic Causeway for another gear and the colt kicked on willingly, his white-blazed face and attentive ears in metronomic rhythm with his efficient stride.
Some judicious stick work at the eighth pole elicited yet another level of torque, and once it became clear no one else was in it to win it, Ortiz let his colt coast home (:25.22 fourth quarter and :6.50 final sixteenth) without further asking, winning by a 2 1/2-length margin that could have been bigger had Classic Causeway been roused for more.
But as impressive as the effort seemed while watching it unfold, the numbers-driven post-race perspective paints a less powerful picture of the victory.
Classic Causeway's final time for 1 1/16 miles was 1:44.90. Three races earlier, in that afternoon's only other race at that distance, older males in a Grade III stakes ran 1.37 seconds faster.
That comparatively slow clocking earned Classic Causeway a Beyer Speed Figure of 84, which represents a four-point regression off his 88 in the Sam F. Davis last month. That number is on par with the GII Rebel S. two weeks back at Oaklawn, which has been resoundingly panned as one of the weaker preps on this season's slate of Derby qualifiers.
In addition, being loose on the lead was a small plus on Saturday at Tampa. After a substantial rain soaking, the “good” track started out sealed before being opened up, and that afternoon's eight dirt races were won by three wire-to-wire leaders, three who vied for the lead, and two from farther off the tailgate.
Considering that speed is the universal bias in North American racing, such a pace profile is not really unusual. But it also brings up the legitimate question of whether Classic Causeway has been excelling over a surface that he absolutely relishes, and whether his undefeated sophomore season will continue when he races at another venue.
The “quality of competition” question is also germane. While Classic Causeway does, in fact, come out of one of the strongest Derby preps we've seen in a while (the Nov. 27 GII Kentucky Jockey Club S.), that key race is now 3 1/2 months in his rear-view mirror, and the company he's been keeping at age three is a cut below the heavy hitters he faced at Churchill. In his two Tampa tries this winter, Classic Causeway has roughed up no other horses currently ranked within the TDN Top 12.
A glance at social media in the aftermath of the Tampa Derby yields no shortage of prognosticators pointing out that Classic Causeway's ability to wrest control from a bunch of double-digit longshots is not the same thing as going head-to-head against the likes of A-level blazer Forbidden Kingdom (American Pharoah) or the battle-proven frontrunner Epicenter (Not This Time).
Again, these criticisms are all lobbed at Classic Causeway in the spirit of acknowledging that when you're ranked No. 1 in any endeavor, you go about life with a figurative target on your back.
A positive performance over nine furlongs (and it doesn't necessarily have to be a win) against tougher competition would make Classic Causeway a formidable foe heading to Louisville.
In that respect, it was refreshing to hear Sunday afternoon that Lynch hasn't been sipping from the less-is-more Kool-Aid punch bowl that some trainers indulge in every spring. There will be no two months of down time between the Tampa and Kentucky Derbies for Classic Causeway.
“It's eight weeks between now and the Derby,” Lynch told TVG's Andie Biancone. “I'd seriously consider the [GI Toyota] Blue Grass [S. at Keeneland Apr. 9]. I don't know if I can sit on him that long without getting a race in him. I think a mile-and-an-eighth race a month out from a mile-and-a-quarter race would be a pretty good way to take one in.”
Asked what impressed him the most about his colt, Lynch said, “Just the want-to that he has in his running style. He just looks so comfortable. He seems to be loving his job at the moment. He just seems to be a really happy horse who's bred to run and he loves to do it.”
And that stout gallop-out after the wire?
“That was something that we were looking at, too,” Lynch said. “Irad sort of geared him down, and when he geared him down he jumped up into the bridle and it was a powerful gallop-out. It always gives you hope that he can run on.”
There's not much arguing that Classic Causeway is strong on visuals but light on numbers. That combination can only carry a colt so far along the Derby trail. We'll just have to sit back and watch the movie a bit longer to see how the plot thickens as the cadence quickens.