This Side Up: How a Pointless Race Can Have the Best of Purposes

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Storm the CourtHorsephotos

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Peter Eurton knows. He has been training since 1989, after all: the year of Sunday Silence and Easy Goer. One, on the West Coast, began his sophomore campaign in an allowance race at Santa Anita over 6 1/2 furlongs, before moving up in distance for the San Felipe 17 days later. The other started out in the Swale over seven furlongs at Gulfstream–the fourth running of a race that had already been won by Chief’s Crown and Seeking The Gold–before going up a furlong for the Gotham, and again for the Wood.

Standard procedure, in those days. You didn’t ask a top-class two-turn prospect to drain the tank in his first run back. By starting in a sprint, you could add a layer of fitness without damaging the base. Just as importantly, you would be sharpening the horse mentally.

It had worked for breed-shaping names throughout Eurton’s boyhood. Northern Dancer warmed up for the Flamingo with a six-furlong allowance at Hialeah. Buckpasser was beaten in a seven-furlong allowance seven days before winning the Everglades, following up in the Flamingo 11 days later. After missing the Triple Crown series with his quarter crack, he renewed the cycle in a six-furlong allowance. He wound up winning the Jockey Club Gold Cup, then still run over two miles, and after a lay-off again resumed in a sprint, in the seven-furlong Malibu. Damascus did much the same: Jockey Club, Washington International, break, Malibu. Setting up his own Classic campaign, Damascus had been another to scale the distance ladder one rung at a time: six-furlong allowance, Bay Shore, Gotham, Wood, Derby.

Same for all three Triple Crown winners of the 1970s. Secretariat kicked off in the Bay Shore; Seattle Slew broke the track record in a seven-furlong Hialeah allowance; and Affirmed took in a similar race over 6 1/2 furlongs 10 days before the San Felipe.

Horatio Luro, Eddie Neloy and Frank Whiteley, Jr. knew. So did Lucien Laurin, Billy Turner and Laz Barrera; Charlie Whittingham and Shug McGaughey. And how about John Nerud, with Gallant Man? He launched his campaign with a 1:09.4 track record at Tropical Park; followed up with the Hibiscus at Hialeah; and then bumped into a horse called Bold Ruler in the Bahamas. And here was a horse who stayed well enough to win the Belmont by eight lengths, never mind the marathon Jockey Club Gold Cup.

All this was the equivalent of waking up a horse with a splash of cold water. Come on, you, there’s a working day ahead. But nowadays that very seldom seems to happen, for two reasons. One is that these sprints carry zero qualifying points for the Derby; and the other is the growing vogue for a lighter program into the first Saturday in May. As a result, with typically only a couple of preps to fit in, there’s no longer a splash of water. Instead you are hauled downstairs by the ankles.

Eurton, of course, doesn’t really have to worry about banking Derby points for Storm the Court (Court Vision), thanks to his shock success in the GI Breeders’ Cup Juvenile. That enables him to do simply what he considers right for his horse. But doesn’t the very use of that phrase invite us all to take a step back, as Storm the Court resurfaces in the GII San Vicente S. Sunday, and ask why anything else should ever enter the equation?

It’s all very well arguing that pure sprinters shouldn’t clutter up the Derby field. True, nobody wants a weakening horse in his path entering the Churchill stretch. But even if you could pick up a few points in a GIII Swale or San Vicente, you would probably still have to place in a longer trial to guarantee a starting slot.

As it is, look what has happened to Derby times since we started sieving out sprinters. In recent years, we could have replaced the stopwatch with a sundial. (Never mind that a faster Derby pace favors the horse who can rate; and that the horse who can rate offers a more intelligent and durable model, when it comes to the breeding shed.)

At the same time, moreover, many Classic winners today struggle to maintain their form; several have failed to win another race of any kind. Triple Crown protagonists often stagger out of the series as sitting ducks for the late bloomers who arrive fresh for the GI Travers S. Code Of Honor (Noble Mission {GB}) was the first Travers winner in four years to have run in a Triple Crown race, and he had sat out the second and third legs.

Perhaps the breed really has become less robust. But perhaps there is also a chicken-and-egg element. Maybe these sophomores would last longer if given a deeper grounding, not just as juveniles (though that, too) but also around this time of year. It is axiomatic, after all, that a horse is liable to run rank when fresh; and the best way to avoid that is to slipstream some specialist sprinters. Go too far, when short of focus and fitness, and you run the risk of bringing home a duller and more brittle animal. Keep short, and you can put an edge on him both physically and mentally.

Of course, we’re still always dealing with flesh and blood. There are no rules about this kind of thing. Nyquist (Uncle Mo), the last Kentucky Derby winner to start his campaign in a sprint, didn’t exactly manage a throwback second half of the year. But equally you can’t argue with the efficacy of his San Vincente as a springboard to the Classics: Nyquist and Exaggerator (Curlin) finished one-two over seven furlongs at Santa Anita in February; one-two over 10 furlongs at Churchill in May; and then one-three, transposing their positions, in the Preakness.

With too many of those who obey the new orthodoxy, certainly, there’s a worrying paradox: though on a lighter program, they reach a premature peak. The old school, in contrast, offered not just extra seasoning for the Classic grind but also extra spice, in terms of dash and knowhow.

It’s curious that this should have happened in an era when commercial breeders are said to be infatuated with precocity and speed. We know that horsemen today don’t trust Thoroughbreds to see out the kind of schedule they would routinely soak up in former times. But the skewed distribution of Derby points gives them an excuse they hardly need. So let’s load some into the San Vicente, the GIII Hutcheson and the Swale; and, while we’re about it, let’s move the GIII Bay Shore back to its previous slot.

Fortunately there are still, in the meantime, horsemen of imagination and adventure. Horsemen who understand that winning or losing is incidental to a sophomore’s opening skirmish. Jimmy Jerkens gets it–just as you would expect, given his upbringing. Green Light Go (Hard Spun) ran into a speedball in the Swale last weekend, but that was an acceptable risk. Storm the Court doesn’t have to win, either; he just needs putting him on a road that won’t crumble beneath him.

He has the luxury of points on the board. But others won’t be so lucky, in the future. And their trainers should not have to forfeit a gate in the Travers or at the Breeders’ Cup, in order to get one in the Derby. They should not be penalized for trying to build a sustainable foundation; for trying to protect the interests of their horse. And that, quite literally, is the long and the short it.

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