Just About the Worst First Possible
American racing has been blessed in the last few years by memorable drama in the 3-year-old classics: great thoroughbred performances, engaging human characters, rags-to-riches stories and bids for the Triple Crown that generated public excitement and record television ratings.
But the victory by Giacomo in Saturday's Kentucky Derby came as a crashing anticlimax -- a race that will rank among the worst Derbies of recent decades, along with Sea Hero's win in 1993 and Gato Del Sol's in 1982. Giacomo's triumph produced more bewilderment than exhilaration. How did it happen that a 50-1 shot, who had won a single race in his career, edged out an equally undistinguished 72-1 shot in the nation's most celebrated horse race?
Pre-race attention had centered on two other colts, Bellamy Road and Afleet Alex, who brought solid credentials to Churchill Downs. Bellamy Road had scored a phenomenal 17 1/2 -length runaway in his final prep race; Afleet Alex had been a tough, consistent competitor this year and last. With a victory, either could have produced the kind of excitement that surrounded Smarty Jones and Funny Cide in the last two seasons.
But besides the two favorites, there was no quality in the 20-horse field -- just a bunch of horses who had won slow prep races because somebody had to win them. If, for any reason, Bellamy Road and Afleet Alex failed to fire their best shots at Churchill Downs, the Derby could turn into a virtual lottery.
And that's what happened.
The 131st Derby was shaped by what happened in the first quarter-mile. Many habitual front-runners populated the field; one of them, Spanish Chestnut, had been entered to go on a suicide mission and set a fast pace to help Bandini, who was owned by the same partnership as the "rabbit." Spanish Chestnut did his job, zipping the first two furlongs in 22.28 seconds (though he couldn't help Bandini, who finished 19th). In the six other Derbies when the first-quarter mile was run between 21.8 and 22.3 seconds, the speed collapsed and the winner rallied from ninth place or farther behind. The fast pace takes a toll not only on the leader but on all the horses in proximity to him. In 2001 the horses running 1-2-3-4 after a quarter-mile finished 13-14-16-11.
The main questions about Bellamy Road before Saturday's race had concerned his ability to withstand such early pressure and to win when he didn't have the early lead to himself. He couldn't do it; he suffered the same fate as all of the horses chasing Spanish Chestnut's fast pace. With only five races in his career and two prep races as a 3-year-old, perhaps he didn't have the necessary experience and seasoning.
As the leaders weakened on the final turn, the stretch-runners were poised to make their moves -- and Afleet Alex was in the best position. Much of the pre-race speculation about the colt had centered on the inexperience of his jockey, Jeremy Rose; the colt's owners and trainer might have replaced him if a top rider had been available. Yet of all 20 jockeys in the Derby, nobody rode better than Rose. He threaded his way through the congested field, saved ground most of the way, got Afleet Alex into high gear on the turn and avoided any traffic that might have stalled his momentum. But in the final eighth of a mile, the colt faltered -- with no excuse. "He just had nothing left," Rose said. Perhaps 1 1/4 miles was a furlong too far for him. Perhaps his form was on the downgrade after a peak effort in the Arkansas Derby. Whatever the reason, Afleet Alex wasn't able to fire his best shot, even with a perfect trip. And the 131st Derby was up for grabs.
It was ready to be won by any horse who could muster any energy in the Churchill Downs stretch. The final half-mile of this Derby was run in 53.16 seconds -- the slowest such fraction over a fast track in the Derby since 1974. Yet horses who looked on paper like late-running threats (such as Wilko, Noble Causeway and Sun King) couldn't make an impact.
Giacomo outfinished them all -- and he's not even a stretch runner. In his three California races this season, he did not pass a single horse in the stretch. It would be more accurate to say he outstaggered his rivals. His final time of 2 minutes 2.75 seconds translated into a Beyer Speed Figure of 100, the worst for the race in at least 20 years. (Two years ago a horse named Buddy Gil earned a figure of 100 in the Derby -- and finished sixth.)
Some racing fans will view this outcome with suspicion. As concerns about illegal drug use have mounted within the industry during the last year, Churchill Downs put into place much tighter security at its barns and more extensive post-race testing procedures. The headline in the Daily Racing Form summed it up: "Derby Put Under the Microscope." In this changed environment, horses who had run explosive prep races didn't duplicate them; trainers who achieved miraculous records elsewhere performed no miracles on Derby day. Perhaps this is too cynical an interpretation of Saturday's events, but in any case this was a dismal Derby -- except for the prescient bettors who had their money on an impossible-looking 50-1 shot.