Cautious approach deprives Preakness Stakes of challengers
Trainer Todd Pletcher has one source of concern as he brings Kentucky Derby winner Super Saver into the Preakness: the calendar. He frets about putting his colt back into competition only two weeks since he ran at Churchill Downs.
To people who pay only casual attention to the sport, as well as to some old-timers, such a worry might be hard to comprehend. The Derby and the Preakness have been spaced two weeks apart since 1950, causing no evident problems for the horses or their trainers. In earlier years the races were closer together. Sir Barton won the 1919 Derby on a Saturday and captured the Preakness the next Wednesday.
But the methods of most American trainers have changed profoundly over the years, and Pletcher embodies the new thinking. He believes in bringing "fresh" horses into major stakes, giving them plenty of time between starts instead of racing them hard to get them fit. He told a pre-Preakness teleconference, "Our statistics show we're most effective running back in 35 to 60 days" after a horse's previous start. That is why he said of Saturday's Preakness, "Our biggest challenge is the 14-day turnaround." At least two factors have influenced this philosophy. Modern-day thoroughbreds are less durable than their forebearers, and trainers can't campaign them as if they were Seabiscuit -- who ran seven times in one month as a 2-year-old.
Moreover, many U. S. trainers -- Pletcher among them -- have been greatly influenced by the ideas of Len Ragozin, the purveyor of speed figures and the originator of the "bounce theory." When a horse runs very fast and delivers a peak effort, according to the theory, that performance will almost inevitably be followed by a decline. The way to mitigate a bounce is to give a horse plenty of time to recuperate after the big effort.
The results might appear to confirm the merits of this style of training. Pletcher has been the most prolific winner of stakes races in the United States over the last decade. He broke the single-season money-winning record set by the late Bobby Frankel, also a Ragozin devotee. Frankel regularly talked about his profession in terms of getting horses to peak and to avoid bounces.
To some extent, of course, this philosophy of training is self-fulfilling. Because trainers believe that horses need more time between races, their horses win with more time between races. However, the sport does offer one way to test what will happen when horses run without long rest. That test is the Preakness Stakes.
While trainers can almost manage to give horses plenty of time between starts, they cannot do so in the Triple Crown series -- especially if they have won the Kentucky Derby. They have to run 14 days later. The results of the Preakness demolish the notions that a 14-day turnaround is a disadvantage and that horses will regress if they ran exceptionally well in the Derby. In the last 13 years, seven winners of the Derby have come back to capture the Preakness, and four others have finished in the money. Only once in the last 25 years has a "fresh" rival beaten runners coming out of the Derby -- when Red Bullet came off a five-week layoff to upset Fusaichi Pegasus in 2000.
Horses that deliver explosive performances in Louisville usually don't lose their form in Baltimore. War Emblem ran the race of his life to pull off the upset in the Derby in 2002 and came back to win the Preakness. Smarty Jones ran superbly in the 2004 Derby and then captured the Preakness by 11 1/2 lengths. Mine That Bird improved stunningly to win the Derby last year and then, instead of bouncing, ran even better when he finished second to Rachel Alexandra at Pimlico.
Despite such evidence, trainers remain committed to the belief that thoroughbreds need long rest between hard races. Their practice has hurt the sport. Horse racing desperately needs stars who can generate public interest, yet the game's best horses may race only five or six times in a year because of ultra-conservative management. Cautious handling of 3-year-old horses has markedly affected the Preakness in recent years. The top finishers in the Derby almost always used to face each other again in Baltimore. Rematches of the 1-2 finishers in the Derby produced epic Preakness battles such as Sunday Silence vs. Easy Goer, Alysheba vs. Bet Twice and Affirmed vs. Alydar. But now horses who run well in the Derby routinely skip the Preakness to rest for something else. In recent years, second-place finishers Aptitude (2000), Invisible Ink (2001), Empire Maker (2003) and Bluegrass Cat (2006) didn't come to Pimlico. All four were trained by Frankel or Pletcher.
Even though Super Saver's victory at Churchill Downs was hardly overpowering, colts who might have beaten him in the Preakness are staying home. Ice Box probably would have won the Derby with a clean trip, but trainer Nick Zito has opted to skip a rematch in order to wait for the Belmont Stakes. Fourth-place Make Music for Me won't run in the Preakness, nor will fifth-place Noble's Promise, who might have improved sharply after his premature move in the Derby. Pletcher, for once, will be the beneficiary of others' conservatism. He doesn't have to worry about rivals who might have been Super Saver's main challengers and -- if history is any guide -- he shouldn't have to worry, either, about running his colt 14 days after the Derby.