- Andy Beyer, who has complained about Polytrack in the past, is extremely unhappy in the wake of the Blue Grass on Saturday.
Racing fans expected Saturday's Blue Grass Stakes to be the definitive prep for the Kentucky Derby, with a showdown between the two leading contenders, Street Sense and Great Hunter.The Keeneland track is not slow. The times at the recent under-tack show for the upcoming juvenile sale were uniformly fast, and we saw that world record race at 4 1/2 furlongs last week. But the early fractions in route races have gotten ridiculously slow, as in the Blue Grass, and this is what has Beyer riled up. He reiterated that he feels that it's an "ugly style of racing." But considering that something like one horse went wire-to-wire in distance races during the fall meet (an unofficial stat that I caught on TVG...but I'm sure the number isn't much higher than that, if at all), who can blame the riders for being as anxious to have the lead as Alberto Gonzales is to get grilled by the Senate Judiciary Committee (an appearance that has been appropriately postponed due to the killings at Virginia Tech).
But when four horses reached the finish line at Keeneland almost simultaneously, with 8-to-1 shot Dominican prevailing by a nose, the result revealed almost nothing about their relative merits. It told nothing about what may happen at Churchill Downs three weeks hence. In fact the Blue Grass, which was contested for the first time over the artificial surface Polytrack, bore little resemblance to thoroughbred racing as most Americans know it. [Washington Post]
It's certainly a fair point that a track that strictly favors closer is no better than one that strictly favors speed, even though given the choice, I would personally pick the former.
But there are a few points that Beyer makes that I would most respectfully disagree with. For one thing, I don't agree that this makes for "ugly racing." Though I agree that Keeneland has probably been too biased to closers, what can be bad about close races with wide open stretch runs; I think they serve the sport well. Even Beyer acknowledges that "Keeneland with Polytrack set wagering records." As he did in his previous column cited above, he writes about how speed is ingrained in American racing, and notes that the breeding industry has invested billions of dollars to produce such horses.
But isn't the emphasis on speed in American pedigrees precisely what many blame for the increasing unsoundness of the breed? Wouldn't a return to an emphasis on stamina help to reverse that trend?
I also disagree with the assertion that "the result revealed almost nothing about their relative merits." In my opinion, Street Sense was the best horse, as I thought he was before the race. I thought Great Hunter would run well without winning, and that's what he did. The race confirmed that Zanjero is a consistent closer who is probably a cut below the top ones (remember that he saved significatn ground compared to the previously mentioned pair), and that Teuflesberg is a nice speed horse who won't hold on at a mile and a quarter. I thought that the form held up rather well, and that the race perfectly reflected their relative merits, albeit in a rather compressed manner.
And finally, Beyer claims that the Blue Grass "told us nothing."
It has no relevance to a fast-paced Derby that will be run on traditional dirt. It didn't tell us whether Street Sense is a potential thoroughbred star or whether Dominican is a worthy Kentucky Derby contender. What's the point of running a rich stakes race when it won't even reveal whether the horses are good or bad, fast or slow?But to that I say, so what? Is there some rule that Derby prep races have to spell everything out for us? Isn't much of the appeal of the race rooted in its unpredictability? I actually think the race told us a lot, at least about Street Sense. I thought that it confirmed that he's is an extremely talented horse, probably the best horse that will go to the post in three weeks. He had to be pretty good to be able to overcome that slow pace and wide trip to almost win the race. On the other hand, it also told us that the colt may have some inexperience issues that could call Nafzger's two-prep strategy into question.
And it race confirmed that Dominican loves the Polytrack. Here I agree with Beyer. It's true, his performance tells us absolutely nothing about his ability to compete with these horses on a traditional dirt track. Of that, we'll have to contemplate, kick it around, come up with our best guess, and assess whether the odds make it worth our while to find out. In that sense, he's just like all of the other 19 horses about whom we'll really just be guessing about their ability to run a distance they've never run before, before more people and commotion that they've ever experienced, and in a crowded field that will create traffic issues they've never before encountered. There's not a Derby prep in the world that will tell us the answer to those questions. That's what betting the Derby is all about - anticipating how young horses will handle something entirely new, and that's what makes it so totally fascinating that we've been discussing it at length for the last four months (at least). If the Polytrack adds yet another variable, then that makes it all the more challenging. And all the more fun.