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Submitted by Jim Hurley on Monday, June 10, 2013 at 12:00 AM


Small samples are always the argument against drawing conclusions from them. In addition, when it comes to ascertaining relevant standards from thoroughbred racing, in which the scenario as to any given race regarding fractions, pace, running style and fortune are also unique determining factors one is always one’s own hesitancy barometer.

However, after watching Saturday’s Belmont Stakes stagger-fest, it is at least fair to begin jumping over the barrier of mere speculation to posit that this year’s group of three-year olds might very well be the slowest we’ve seen in quite a while.

Before I get into some of the this year’s Belmont Stakes and comparative numbers let me extend perfunctory congratulations to the connections of Palace Malice (the colt can’t read this so wouldn’t gain anything from the kudos) for regrouping following his misadventure in the Kentucky Derby and winning the Belmont Stakes on Saturday.

And to those of you who have e-mailed, tweeted, phoned, etc. to ask me WHY if I liked Palace Malice well enough to make him my Kentucky Derby choice, did I go away from him in the Belmont? I will assume that those of you who did communicate with this question aren’t assuming that simply
because I liked him for the Kentucky Derby I would automatically come back to him in the Belmont.

Like the other small colony of handicappers that pay attention to such things, I was certainly alerted by Palace Malice’s final workout, one that trainer Todd Pletcher called as impressive as any he’s seen. All that being said, were I to jump on the bandwagon of every over-the-top pronouncement by a trainer I’d wind up proffering the selections of three or four horses in any given race. Yes, the work was impressive, but here is why I did not use Palace Malice in the Belmont.

After his disastrous out-of-control front running effort in the Derby I decided that all that trouble he had gotten into in the preps, trouble which he worked hard to overcome while flashing signs of potential, was instead perhaps a "tendency" to be erratic. I felt he should have been more seasoned by the Derby and he wasn’t. Admittedly, I was not convinced that the colt was ready to move forward and when the forecasts called for a wet track throughout the day (remember, part of the program is that these selections have to be made 36 hours in advance due to public demand...and once those selections are made I can’t change things hours before the race) and I will stand by the handicapping methods I have used more successfully than not that the erratic behavior this colt had exhibited in the past and NOT moved beyond in the Kentucky Derby was something that I felt would be equally exacerbated by an off track. And it is germane to reflect that while the Blue Grass Stakes second was a signal that the colt was moving forward, the Derby was a definitive regression for a colt that was still eligible for Non-Winners Of Two Races Lifetime heading into the Belmont Stakes.

And given how underwhelming Palace Malice’s race actually was, I wasn’t totally wrong about him...I was only wrong about the ability of ANY of the other three-year olds...and I do mean ANY OF THEM (with perhaps the exception of Oxbow’s grittiness) to run anything near a Triple Crown caliber race. And to make that point it is now time to look at some numbers.

Palace Malice broke 5th in the early going and Mike Smith had him comfortably within striking distance of the pace setters and just as, or perhaps even more important, had the colt on his own ahead of the pack behind him. He was 1 ½ lengths in front of the pack of Incognito, Overanalyze, Unlimited Budget and Midnight Taboo who were in a pack separated by a bit less than two lengths a quarter mile in and then in 4th place, just off the dueling trio of Frac Daddy, Oxbow and Freedom Child with a mile left in the race while 3 lengths clear of the rallying Revolutionary, Incognito, Unlimited Budget and Frac Daddy, who were also packed within 2 lengths of each other. Yet even with this easy a trip and even though he pulled away in the stretch, the conclusion has to be that it wasn’t so much what Palace Malice did as what the others didn’t. And when you look at the fractions of the race, perhaps it is worth at least beginning to evaluate what they mean moving forward.

Here are the fractional break downs for the Belmont winner:

  • First Quarter - :23 3/5
  • Second Quarter - :23 2/5
  • Third & Fourth Quarter Combined - :49 3/5
  • Fifth Quarter - :26 2/5
  • Final Quarter - :27 3/5

That means he not only ran the final quarter in :27 3/5, but the final half mile in :54 flat and the final mile in 1:43 3/5. AND HE WAS PULLING AWAY!!!

This would be bad enough if it were an isolated incident...and although the final quarter was the slowest since Sarava’s 26 1/5 in 2002 and Commendable’s :26 flat in 2000 and Da’ Tara’s :26 3/5 in 2008 it is even more pronouncing when combined with the fifth quarter because that final half mile in :54 flat continues a declining trend which could very well lead us to that "speculation about the disappearance of endurance.

Here are the final half mile times of recent Belmont Stakes winners...
2013 - Palace Malice - :54
2012 - Union Rags - :51 1/5
2011 - Ruler On Ice - :50 4/5
2010 - Drosslemeyer - :50 3/5
2009 - Summer Bird - :48 2/5
2008 - Da’ Tara - :51 4/5
2007 - Rags To Riches - :48 1/5
2006 - Jazil - :49 3/5
2005 - Afleet Alex - :49 4/5
2004 - Birdstone - :50 3/5
2003 - Empire Maker - :50 1/5
2002 - Sarava - :52 1/5
2001 - Point Given - :51
2000 - Commendable - : 51 4/5
1999 - Lemon Drop Kid - :49 4/5
1998 - Victory Gallop - :50 1/5
1997 - Touch Gold - :49 4/5

Of course the mile and a half for three-year olds that have never raced a mile and a half becomes more of a rider’s race than either of the other Triple Crown Races, but now that we’ve calculated Palace Malice’s numbers for the Belmont Stakes let’s evaluate some of the other comparative figures in the race.
The half mile times cranked out by BOTH Palace Malice and Oxbow were quicker by far than any recent half mile Belmont Stakes times.

Palace Malice - :47 flat
Oxbow - :46 3/5

Now look at the half mile times for the recent Belmont Stakes.
2012 - :49 1/5
2011 - :49
2010 - :49
2009 - :47 (Dunkirk set pace rapid early Palace Malice and Oxbow and held on for the place...but ran his final mile in 1:41 flat...18 lengths faster than this year’s Belmont winner, following the same first half mile time.)
2008 - :48 1/5 (Da’ Tara went final mile in 1:41 3/5 with Palace Malice in 1:43 3/5...Da’ Tara 6 lengths slower first half...10 lengths faster final mile...even that moderate pace was lengths more productive.)
2007 - :50
2006 - :47 1/5
2005 - :48 3/5
2004 - :48 3/5
2003 - :48 3/5
2002 - :48
2001 - :48
2000 - :49
1999 - :47 3/5 (Charismatic battled Silver Bullet day on the lead through the :47 3/5 and held on for third with a final mile in 1:40 3/5...which means 3 lengths slower than PM early and 20 lengths faster late...even Silver Bullet Day, who faded to 7th got her final mile in 1:43 1/5.)
1998 - :48 3/5
1997 - :49 1/5

But it wasn’t only Palace Malice’s pedestrian slow late run that was uncatchable...Oxbow, who is getting a lot of credit for holding on to the place spot after being much more tested early than the winner (it is a legitimate observation) was able to finish clear of the rest...he was almost 2 lengths in front of Orb.

So the question is right there staring us in the face. With a pace like that up front, why didn’t Revolutionary, who appeared ready to pounce as he moved into third coming off the far turn continue his rally? Why didn’t Orb, who made up plenty of ground as he moved into position, do any better than chug home third behind Oxbow and merely a length ahead of the tiring Incognito (who was much more engaged early) and the equally disappointing Revolutionary? There is only one conclusion...none of them appear capable of getting a mile and a half and they are all slow.

Of course one race doesn’t define a class of horses, but you only need to go back 3 weeks to the Preakness when whether they wanted to or couldn’t, the entire field of horses and jockeys stumbled around the Pimlico oval behind Oxbow’s wire-to-wire victory in 1:57 2/5...the slowest time by at least 4 lengths and much more often than not 6-1/2 lengths since...well I only went back to 1991. Let me bore you with the times...

2012 - 1:55 4/5...2011 - 1:56 2/5...2010 - 1:55 2/5...2009 - 1:55...2008 - 1:54 4/5...2007 - 1:53 2/5...2006 - 1:54 3/5...2005 - 1:55...2004 - 1:55 2/5...2003 - 1:55 3/5...2002 - 1:56 1/5...2001 - 1:55 2/5...2001 - 1:56...2000 - 1:55 1/5...1999 - 1:54 3/5...1998 - 1:54 4/5...1996 - 1:53 2/5...1995 - 1:54 2/5...1994 - 1:56 2/5...1993 - 1:56 3/5...1992 - 1:55 3/5...1991 - 1:54

And when Oxbow won the Preakness he did so by daylight. Just as was the case in the Belmont Stakes, not a single runner came on late.

Again...this can all be dismissed as subjective...and yes, horses run against other horses, not the clock, but all things considered, the comparative results from the Preakness and Belmont Stakes are rather impactful as to "speculating" that the 2013 three-year old crop is a rather pedestrian one.

Oh...and before I close. Orb’s Kentucky Derby win by open lengths was the fourth slowest since 1994.

Final Note: It has also been suggested that there is some chicanery involved on the part of a trainer like Todd Pletcher, who enters five horses, only to see one succeed while the others finish fifth, sixth, seventh and twelfth. This is of course nonsense. Pletcher doesn’t make the ultimate decisions as to which of his horses he’ll run and which he won’t. In fact, given autonomy he’d likely have run fewer.

But undoubtedly, WinStar Farm, the owners of Revolutionary definitely wanted to run following that one’s solid show in the Derby, Dogwood Stable had made their decision to skip the Preakness and point to the Belmont just days after the Derby and the other three runners trained by Pletcher, Incognito, Unlimited Budget and Midnight Taboo, while all generally viewed as a tad below Palace Malice and Revolutionary are all owned by Mike Repole, a New York guy who repeatedly made it known that he has always considered winning the Belmont Stakes as his most important goal.

Now, had this been anything but a Grade I Triple Crown race where horses owned by the same person or barn can run as single entities, those three would have been a three horse coupled entry. That is why Pletcher ran five horses...that and no other reason. In the Belmont Stakes the owners made the decisions, not Pletcher.

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