The World's Greatest Handicapper is befuddled. Ever since Tasso won the Breeders' Cup last fall, I have confidently declared that he is an undistinguished, overrated racehorse. His victory in the $1 million event at Aqueduct was the only notable performance of his career, and he won by a narrow margin over a weak field in slow time.
I thought my case against Tasso was airtight until April 5, when he ran in the one-mile Gotham Stakes. Tasso finished third (and was placed second because of a disqualification) behind Mogambo, another colt who had never accomplished much, so that defeat should have confirmed my assessment of him. But the Teletimer said otherwise.
The Gotham was run in 1:34 4/5, a sensational time over a track that was not especially fast. Mediocre horses can't possibly run so well. How, I wondered, could I have been so wrong in my evaluation of Tasso and Mogambo?
Then another thought occurred to me: Maybe I wasn't wrong. Maybe the time of the Gotham was an illusion.
On rare occasions, freaky conditions may arise during the course of a racing program to make the time of a particular race seem extraordinarily fast (or slow). The reason may be a change in the weather, the movement of the tides, the work done by the track maintenance crew. Whatever the cause, the effects can be dramatic.
On the day of the Blue Grass Stakes last season, the Keeneland racing surface wasn't unusually fast, judging by the times of the earlier races on the program.
Then Chief's Crown won the Blue Grass in the sensational time of 1:47 3/5 for 1 1/8 miles, beating his rivals, Banner Bob and Floating Reserve, by five lengths, to establish himself as the solid Kentucky Derby favorite.
But something was wrong; not only had Chief's Crown run the fastest race of his life in the Blue Grass, but so had the two horses behind him. When Chief's Crown and Floating Reserve were soundly beaten in the Derby, it was clear in retrospect that the Blue Grass time had been a phony.
Now I wonder if something similar happened in the Gotham. A light rain fell shortly before the race, and water sometimes speeds up the Aqueduct racing strip. Not only did Mogambo and Tasso seemingly improve so much at the same time, but so, too, did some of the other horses behind them.
The sixth-place finisher in the Gotham, Mr. Classic, finished eight lengths behind Mogambo, running the mile in 1:36 2/5. It was an apparently excellent effort, the best of his life. Yet a week later, Mr. Classic came back into a low-grade allowance race and was soundly beaten, even though the winning time was 1:37.
Whatever, Saturday's Wood Memorial Stakes should clear things up. If the colts again run sensationally fast, confirming the result of the Gotham, they clearly have developed into solid Kentucky Derby contenders. If the Wood is a slow race, then the Gotham was probably a fluke.
This may sound like a minute technical point to casual racing fans. After all, as the Derby approaches, the contenders are going to be assessed in terms of heart, courage and stamina, not according to a few fifths of a second.
But I believe that the time of the Wood holds the whole key to the Kentucky Derby.
If Tasso and Mogambo are strong contenders, then the Run for the Roses is wide open. But if they can be eliminated, or even discredited, I am going to reverse my long-established record of ineptitude in Derby handicapping, because there will be a sure-fire bet at Churchill Downs.