By Chris McGrath
The world we share with these amazing animals may be an ever-changing one, but its mysteries abide. We consider ourselves ever more knowledgeable, ever more certain, riding the slipstream of science. Yet how much do we truly know, when Afternoon Deelites holds out for all those years and then waits just six days before following his owner to whatever shore may (or may not) lie beyond the horizon of life?
The same journey was made this week by the trainer of Alydar. John Veitch laid the ground for the greatest Triple Crown campaign of any horse that never won a Triple Crown race by giving him 10 starts as a juvenile. Curiously, however, trainers of the succeeding generation appear to have decided either that they have found a better way; or at least that the materials provided, since breeding became an almost exclusively commercial enterprise, are no longer equal to the same kind of treatment.
Trainers today map out the road to the Derby with two priorities: minimize gas consumption, and avoid traffic. That way, they feel, their charges can reach Churchill with a relatively full tank and pristine engine. But the fact is that you always feel able to drive a car more aggressively once it has taken a few bumps and scratches. And you also learn far more about its capacity and response if you have repeatedly had to accelerate or brake to get out of trouble, as compared with cruising along an open road and every six weeks overtaking a laboring truck while barely changing gear.
In the prevailing environment, then, we must give credit to the people at Fair Grounds for redressing the shortfall in conditioning by extending the distance of all three legs of their trials program. If horses can no longer get the kind of mental and physical foundation they once derived from sheer volume of racing, then at least they can have a little more aggregate. With a field of 14, moreover, the GII Risen Star S. is meanwhile guaranteed to steepen the learning curve.
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Saturday will be only the fourth time the race has been run over this extra 1/16th, yet its last two winners have both gone on to finish second in the Derby. One, of course, was actually promoted to first place; while much the same was done for the other by voters at the recent Eclipse Awards.
To be fair, the Risen Star was already on a roll, having lately produced a GI Preakness winner, the phenomenal Gun Runner and the promising stallion Girvin. Between here and Oaklawn, then, you won't find many handicappers nowadays still reducing the quest for the Derby winner to the two dimensions of East and West Coasts. Paradoxically, however, I feel that a still better way to regenerate the Triple Crown trail lurks right at the other end of the spectrum.
Alydar started his Classic campaign over seven furlongs; so too, as it happens, did Afternoon Deelites. With Diana Firestone also among the week's obituaries, we might mention Honest Pleasure and Genuine Risk, who both resumed in sprints as well. That had long been standard procedure, for the old school, as a way of sharpening a horse without penetrating to a vulnerable margin of fitness.
I've often remarked on the dilution of the Derby since the willful exclusion of sprinters under the starting points system. Okay, so they finally managed a meltdown last year and so set up a historic aberration in every way. But otherwise the race has lately been dominated by those setting or sharing a pace shorn of raw sprint competition. And I do think that the Derby's status as the definitive test of the American Thoroughbred, identifying the kind of genes we should want to replicate, is suffering as a result.
Between trainers' dread of running horses at all, and the imperative to bank points when they actually do, we're ending up with the worst of both worlds. Remember that it was as recently as 2015 that Nyquist and Exaggerator cranked each other up over seven in the GII San Vicente S., in 1:20.7, and that didn't work out too badly on Derby day.
I really do think that loading a few points into the San Vicente and the GIII Swale S. would be a smart move by Churchill. Because it doesn't feel as though the model nowadays favored by trainers is working on too many levels. It certainly doesn't work for fans, who get a woefully condensed narrative and reduced engagement; it arguably doesn't help the horses, sent straight into the red zone when they can't be fully fit; and I'm not sure it's working for the Derby, either as a spectacle or as a signpost to genes that can carry meaningful speed.
In the meantime, aptitudes of more obvious pertinence to the Derby scenario will at least be examined in this crowd scene for the Risen Star. And wait, look at this: there's actually a horse in the field with eight starts to his name already. Determinedly (Cairo Prince) is followed here by the pair of Tapits he held off in an allowance last month, a performance rather too faintly praised because everyone had written a different script in advance. Actually this horse's own part keeps being rewritten, having started out on turf and apparently flirted with a return to sprinting. But maybe he can keep some of these flashier types honest, and help to measure the kind of talent Victory Formation (Tapwrit) will need to maintain his unbeaten record from a post out near Baton Rouge.
From a European perspective, it's always surprising that people should be so specific, almost dogmatic, about the optimality of dirt horses operating within so narrow a range. The way people talk, you would think that the poor creatures will drop clean off the edge of the world if venturing that crucial 1/16th too far.
That's why I like to see them given the chance to work on their all-around game, and develop different strengths. Because, if the oldest of Old Friends can be so susceptible even in the span of his years, then what limits might we be putting on the things they do in their prime?