One might suppose that successful trainers and jockeys would understand at least as much about their sport as ordinary horseplayers do.
Yet even world famous professionals frequently demonstrate that they know almost nothing about racing tactics. It is as if Joe Gibbs had never heard of a blitz or John Thompson didn't know how to coach a full-court press.
Until Saturday I had thought that the classic illustration of this premise was Linkage's loss in the 1982 Preakness, when trainer Henry Clark and jockey Bill Shoemaker were virtually the only two people at Pimlico who didn't know about the bias that gave an insuperable advantage to horses on the rail. But theirs was a minor oversight compared to what trainer Mack Miller and jockey Pat Day did at Belmont Park.
Day's ride on Java Gold might rank as the dumbest I have ever seen in a major stakes race.
As readers might have noticed, I am no apologist for Java Gold. I consider him a phony with a ridiculously overblown reputation, and I hoped he would lose the Gold Cup to put an end to all the hype. Yet I am sure that he would have won the $1 million race by at least five lengths if he had been ridden intelligently. After bruising a hoof during the race, he would have been retired for the rest of the season with the horse of the year title locked up.
Instead, Day lost by nearly five lengths to Creme Fraiche, who hadn't won a stakes since January. Because Java Gold is sidelined with a bruised right hoof, he will not be able to redeem his reputation in the Breeders' Cup, and he probably will blow the Eclipse Award as a result. Rarely has a bad ride been so costly.
Even a neophyte handicapper looking at the Gold Cup field could tell immediately that there was virtually no speed in the field. Of the six entrants, five did not show a single race in their past performances in which they had taken the lead during the first three-quarters of a mile. The only horse with a trace of speed was Java Gold.
It is an axiom of the sport that a horse who can take an uncontested early lead is always formidable. Whenever a handicapper studies a race, he will look to see if there is a potential lone speed horse in the lineup. Even bad horses can win when they encounter such favorable circumstances; good horses will demolish their opponents and look like worldbeaters.
Although fans and gamblers fully appreciate the importance and usefulness of speed, many trainers seem to fear it. They often think that sending a horse to the lead is an act of considerable boldness -- or desperation. Trainers' caution frequently influences jockeys, who know that the surest way to be second-guessed (or fired) is to send a horse to the lead and lose.
Java Gold is such a versatile colt that Miller and Day could have planned just about any strategy for the Gold Cup. They reasonably could have decided to send Java Gold to the front. They could have decided to let Day play it by ear and go to the lead if the pace seemed very slow.
Instead, Day chose to ride Java Gold in the fashion most likely to get him beat: by taking him back behind a very slow pace. He said after the Gold Cup that he didn't want to alter the stretch-running style that had carried Java Gold to three straight victories. But the composition of those races was very different from that of the Gold Cup. Day and Miller probably thought that this was the "safe" strategy, but in fact it was the riskiest course they could have taken.
When Day put Java Gold under a hammerlock in the early stages of the Gold Cup, Creme Fraiche was permitted to cruise the first half mile in 51 seconds, the six furlongs in a ridiculous 1:16 2/5 and the mile in 1:41 2/5. After that the race was effectively over; there was no way Java Gold was going to make up any ground.
Based on his previous performances, Java Gold figured to be able to run 1 1/2 miles in 2:29 or thereabouts. Yet Creme Fraiche was able to trounce him by running in 2:30 4/5.
Day and Miller have only themselves to blame. The next time they are involved in a $1 million championship race, they ought to pick a random fan in the grandstand at Belmont and ask for advice on strategy. They surely would be better off than they would be by using their own judgment.