13 May 2014 Preakness: The Match Race That Wasn’t!
[dropcap]T[/dropcap]he headline reads: “Untapable to Challenge California Chrome in Preakness!” Only in our dreams, racing fans! Only in our wildest dreams. Untapable heads for the Acorn Stakes at Belmont, while California Chrome invades Crimea…errr…marches into Maryland for the Preakness.
From the LazyBettor’s perspective, a duel between the two impressive 3-year-olds held the potential to create wagering value…on California Chrome. One way or another Chrome will bear the weight of favoritism in the Preakness. But with Untapable in the race, his burden would have shifted from an unpalatable 3-5 to a very tappable 2-1.
Although it’s tough to compare races at 2 different distances on a track that played very differently from one day to the next (as was the case, allegedly, at Churchill Downs on Derby weekend), anyone hoping to profit from the races must try. So here are some key differences between Untapable’s 9-furlong victory and Cal Chrome’s win at 10 furlongs:
♦ Untapable earned a Beyer figure of 107 with a historically fast final time of 1:48.3.
♦ California Chrome notched only a 97 Beyer with a final time that was slow by nearly every measure.
♦ A peek at internal fractions further suggests Untapable’s effort was superior. When asked to give it her all at the 6-furlong mark, she ripped through the following quarter mile in :24 flat! When Espinoza decided it was time to end California Chrome’s cat-and-mouse game up front, he hustled his mount to the mile marker through a rather dawdling quarter of :25.2, a time that most decent allowance horses can match or exceed.
Given this additional evidence of Untapable’s superiority, why would I see California Chrome as a value bet if the two raced against each other? Because of the pace figures that show up on their respective resumes.
In The Lazy Bettor’s Guide to the Kentucky Derby, I describe the research-based standards that define a fast pace (that is, fast enough to be an honest Grade 1 pace). California Chrome exceeded those standards prior to the Derby. Untapable has never come close to them.
Every year we see a horse or two crush their competition repeatedly as these two horses have done. Every year pace tells you whether such a “superstar” will continue tearing up graded-stakes foes. This year the pace figures tell us California Chrome will continue to dominate the graded-stakes division. And they tell us that—much like Verrazano, Uncle Mo, Union Rags and other slow-early, fast-late types—Untapable will wilt when she faces a true Grade 1 pace scenario.
Here’s a list of Derby-prep pace figures that illustrates how “slow early” horses fail to live up to their pre-Derby hype. The horses on this list accomplished little in the Kentucky Derby or in Grade 1 races where they faced a fast pace. I used a distance-equivalence chart from Pace Makes the Race (by Howard Sartin and others) and made minimal adjustments to figures (as described in my book). Keep in mind that each point equals one length and I define a pace figure of 89 as “fast” for Grade 1 horses:
♦ Verrazano……………………….84 early, 90 late
♦ Uncle Mo………………………..84 early, 92 late
♦ Tapit (sire of Untapable)….84 early, 94 late
♦ Union Rags……………………..82 early, 97 late
♦ Untapable……………………….83 early, 99 late
Verrazano gave a lackluster performance in the 2013 Kentucky Derby. Todd Pletcher then relegated his “star” to New Jersey rather than entering him in the Preakness and Belmont or sending him to Saratoga. In Jersey, Verrazano romped twice against other Derby also-rans and a few ponies from a beach carnival at Wildwood. The pace he faced was slow on both occasions. He then failed while facing horses who could handle an honest stakes pace: in the Travers at Saratoga and in the BC Classic.
Through the early stages of the 2012 Derby prep season, Union Rags was hailed as a superstar who might be undefeated but for a few troubled trips. He, too, failed to rise to the biggest challenges of his career and ended his career with just weak-paced wins to his credit.
A similar story unfolds for Uncle Mo, who was billed as an unbeatable racing monster after beginning his career with 4 consecutive blowout victories. After those wins, he never bested stakes horses again.
With the exception of Untapable’s sire Tapit, all horses on this list preferred to be forwardly placed or leading by the 6-furlong mark. Weaker prep races afforded them the luxury of strolling through an opening 6 furlongs in 1:12 or so while still leading or within sight of the lead.
The narrative (of “superstar dominates”) changes drastically when the pace heats up and forces these types to run 5 lengths faster in the early stages (from an 84 to at least an 89 using my figures). That’s when handicappers hear a litany of excuses from the star’s connections: “a bad trip,” “a cuppy surface,” “didn’t like being stuck on the rail,” “didn’t like being hung out wide,” “didn’t care for the in-flight movie.” Shouldn’t a superstar rise above these petty obstacles?
It looks like we won’t have to suffer through a storm of such excuses from Untapable’s connections. At least not yet.
Though the owners of Untapable crushed my dreams of finding value on California Chrome in the Preakness, they made the right choice in avoiding a showdown with the Kentucky Derby winner. But there’s always the Travers! Oh well, I can dream, can’t I?