John Clay: Kentucky Derby isn't a time trial, so don't judge Chrome by the clock

Herald-Leader Sports ColumnistMay 14, 2014 

derbyRace

Jockey Victor Espinoza and California Chrome, right, pulled away at the top of the stretch in the Kentucky Derby. The winning time of 2:03.66 has fueled his doubters.

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  • Preakness Stakes

    When: Saturday, May 17 (6:18 p.m.)

    Where: Baltimore (Pimlico Park)

    TV: NBC-18

    Belmont Stakes

    When: Saturday, June 7

    Where: Elmont, N.Y. (Belmont Park)

There's an old saying: Time only matters if you're in prison.

Yet in the nearly two weeks leading up to Saturday's Preakness Stakes, the one chink in California Chrome's armor, the one ray of hope for challengers, is the slow time the California-bred covered the mile-and-a-quarter at Churchill Downs to win the Kentucky Derby.

The official 2:03.66 was the slowest on a fast track since Cannonade's 2:04 in the 1974 Kentucky Derby, which was a 23-horse field.

Chrome earned a Beyer Speed Figure of 97, the lowest for a Derby or a Preakness since the legendary Washington Post handicapper Andy Beyer started publishing his speed figures in 1987.

The Monday after the Derby, Beyer even wrote that the slow time was "an indictment of the modern American thoroughbred."

Whoa, wait a minute here.

The main objective for the first Saturday in May isn't to run the fastest Kentucky Derby in history; it's to win the Kentucky Derby.

Horse racing isn't Olympic cycling or the Tour de France — keep any drugging comments or comparisons to yourselves, please — where they hold time trials.

Derby horses don't spring from the starting gate one-by-one with the roses going to the horse that clocks the fastest time. The Derby is a competition that includes strategy, physical contact, racing luck.

In fact, California Chrome was so much the better on Derby Day, jockey Victor Espinoza was practically on cruise control the final 70 yards or so.

Espinoza even raised his whip before he reached the finish line, still a length and three-quarters in front of the closing Commanding Curve.

The subsequent time debate is reminiscent of baseball's sabermetrics. Numbers are important and can often correct the biases of the naked eye, but watching the sporting event also holds some value.

If you go back and watch the 140th running of the Derby, it was obvious that no jockey wanted to grab the lead and go, thus the slow half-mile time of 47.37, two seconds behind the 45.33 of the year before.

Espinoza deftly judged the pace to put Chrome in a perfect spot: just behind the leaders.

Besides, Chrome has run plenty fast in the past. He posted a career-high 108 Beyer in winning the San Felipe. His winning time in the Santa Anita Derby was the fifth-fastest in the 77 runnings of the race and earned a 107 Beyer.

Plus, as Mike Watchmaker of the Daily Racing Form wrote, 15 of the 19 horses in the Derby posted a slower Beyer Speed Figure for that race than in their previous race. Two of the four that improved were Harry's Holiday and Vinceremos, who both were coming off snail figures in the Toyota Blue Grass Stakes at Keeneland.

History tells us that unless the horse is Secretariat, the winning Derby time doesn't mean much in the Preakness, either.

Monarchos won the 2001 Kentucky Derby in a blistering 1:59.97, the second-fastest Derby winning time in history, behind only Secretariat's 1:59.40. Monarchos' Beyer Speed Figure was a 116, by the way.

Yet, Monarchos finished sixth in the Preakness, won by Point Given, who also won the Belmont.

On the flip side is Charismatic, who won the 1999 Kentucky Derby on a fast track in a time of 2:03.29, just a fraction in front of Chrome.

Yet Charismatic, trained by D. Wayne Lukas, won the Preakness and came close to being the first horse to win the Triple Crown since Affirmed in 1978.

The 2-1 Belmont favorite, Charismatic took the lead late, only to give way and finish third behind Lemon Drop Kid and Vision and Verse. It was later learned Charismatic suffered a broken leg in the final furlong.

Hopefully, nothing like that happens. By all reports, California Chrome is happy and healthy in Baltimore and the guess here is he will win the Preakness — never mind that slow Derby time.

139th PREAKNESS

When: Saturday May 17 | TV: NBC | Distance: 1 3/16 miles | Weight: 126 lbs.
PP HorseTrainer Jockey Odds
1Dynamic ImpactCasseMena12-1
2General a RodMakerCastellano15-1
3California ChromeShermanEspinoza3-5
4Ring WeekendMotionGarcia20-1
5BayernBaffertNapravnik10-1
6Ria AntoniaAmossBorel30-1
7Kid CruzRicePimentel20-1
8Social InclusionAzpuruaContreras5-1
9Pablo Del MonteWardSanchez20-1
10Ride On CurlinGowanRosario10-1

John Clay: 859-231-3226. E-mail: jclay@herald-leader.com. Blog: Johnclay.bloginky.com.Twitter: @johnclayiv.

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