Andy Serling has been playing the horses for almost his entire life, and is currently the co-host of NYRA Live. To follow Andy on Twitter, click here.
The Kentucky Derby was a classic meltdown. In other words, it was a race where the farther back you were early, the better your ultimate chances were to succeed, and conversely, the closer you were to the pace, the worse you could be expected to finish. It was not unlike the 2010 BC Classic, only perhaps even more exaggerated. This is not to say that Orb was not one of the best, if not the best, horses in the race, but it does help explain why he looked as good as he did, and subsequently, why he was not nearly as effective in the Preakness….but let’s not get ahead of ourselves. Golden Soul and Revolutionary both benefited from ground saving rides, and more importantly their early positions, 15th and 18th respectively. The reason for this collapse was the unreasonably fast early pace set by Palace Malice. Because of this, horses either close to the early pace, or early movers, were negatively impacted. The most obvious example of this was Normandy Invasion, whose early move, and subsequent close finish, drew the most attention. The second best example of this was Oxbow, from where he was placed early, to when he moved, and finally to where he finished. While I am not suggesting that Oxbow ran as well as Orb, I am saying that if you reversed the dynamics from one that favored closers to one that favored speed horses, a reversal of finish becomes hardly surprising.
It did not necessarily seem, as we headed to Baltimore, that this reversal of dynamics was likely. One of the main reasons for this was the entry of Titletown Five, a horse with significant early speed, and one also trained by Oxbow’s trainer D Wayne Lukas. However, Mr. Lukas said before the race that he intended to rate Titletown Five, and certainly employing Julian Leparoux, a rider renowned for his patient handling of horses, made it even more possible that this was more than just trainerspeak. Still, given the presence of Goldencents and Itsmyluckyday, along with Oxbow, a fair pace seemed all but assured….and a fair pace is exactly what we got. However, there is a substantial difference between a fair pace and a supersonic ( see the Kentucky Derby ) pace. With the fair pace, the speeds were not compromised, and the talents of the closers, notably Orb, were not exaggerated.
Now, I am not trying to suggest that the Preakness result was easy to predict beforehand. Orb had already demonstrated, with his definitive Florida Derby victory ( over Itsmyluckyday ), that he did not need a fast pace in order to be successful, as that day he sat much closer to a moderate pace, and still had a powerful late kick. What I am saying is that the very different results are far from inexplicable. To me, this is an important concept that needs to be conveyed to the many people that view the Triple Crown races annually. The worst thing we can do is anoint a horse a superhorse, and very possible Triple Crown winner, after just the first leg, especially when that victory is achieved under very favorable circumstances. This can have two very negative results with novices. First, it can lead to disappointment and disillusionment towards the supposed Superstar, and secondly it lends more credence to the concept that horse racing is random. We, as an industry, have an obligation to explain why the latter is not true. This is also something that is not really that hard to do.
The NFL, arguably beginning with John Madden, has done a sensational job explaining a very complicated game to the masses. This was done by appealing to people’s intellect, most notably through the use of an on-screen Telestrator. The same can also be said for the NBA, which has the powerful duo of Charles Barkley and the more Telestrator oriented Kenny Smith, to explain basketball to the masses on a regular basis. Fans interest can only be encouraged by increasing their understanding of any sport, and thus unlocking its various mysteries. We, as a sport, will only benefit from doing the same. Imagine the fan that was exposed to the prior discussion of the Kentucky Derby, and then the pre-Preakness suggestions that horses close to the Kentucky Derby’s early pace were the likeliest possible upsetters. This would have had two very positive results. First, it would have led to a more reasonable understanding of why Orb did not perform as well in Baltimore as he had in Louisville, and thus less overall dissatisfaction and disappointment. Secondly, while the fan may well not have bet Oxbow, he/she may well have said to themselves after the race “ I didn’t have him today….but I’ll have him next year “ and that is exactly how we can create fans….and in my opinion, it is how we MUST create fans.