When Criminal Type came east to win the $1 million Pimlico Special, and then scored a stunning upset in the Metropolitan Handicap, his success might have seemed to defy logic.
The 5-year-old had not been considered a superstar in his home base of California. He had not been able to win the biggest races for older horses at Santa Anita this winter. Yet at Belmont Park last Monday, he was good enough to wear down the brilliant speedster Housebuster and to hold off a late challenge from the mighty Easy Goer.
However, there was a thread of handicapping logic that ran through Criminal Type's whole record, and it was a thread that was connected to many of the other major races this spring, including the Kentucky Derby, the Preakness and Pimlico's Black-Eyed Susan Stakes.
At the time, I didn't fully appreciate the factors that were affecting these races, nor did the majority of horseplayers, who bet them wrong. But the results may be instructive in the future, when we have to evaluate California horses shipping east for major stakes.
Bettors everywhere know tracks in the West favor horses with speed. California tracks offer a version of thoroughbred racing unlike any other on earth, with jockeys spurring their horses to top speed as soon as the gate opens, so that they can take advantage of the tracks' tendencies.
And Santa Anita's racing surface this year epitomized the western version of the game. Consider the results of Santa Anita's major races for 3-year-old colts, for 3-year-old fillies, for older fillies and mares and for older males:
Mister Frisky battled for the lead in the Santa Anita Derby and drew away to such an easy victory he established himself as the standout 3-year-old in the West and the favorite in the Kentucky Derby. But while his speed had carried him 1 1/8 miles at Santa Anita, he collapsed after six furlongs at Churchill Downs and wound up losing by 20 lengths. He was soundly trounced by several unheralded California horses in the field. Two weeks later, Mister Frisky gave another faint-hearted performance in the Preakness.
Hail Atlantis led all the way to win a top 3-year-old filly race, the Santa Anita Oaks, by seven lengths, and looked so impressive trainer Wayne Lukas was talking about the Kentucky Derby for her. Yet when Hail Atlantis came to Pimlico for the Black-Eyed Susan Stakes, and was made the favorite, she took the lead, but collapsed before reaching the stretch.
Bayakoa led all the way to beat Gorgeous by six lengths in Santa Anita's principal stakes for older fillies and mares. But when they faced each other again at Oaklawn Park, Bayakoa weakened and Gorgeous beat her by nearly three lengths.
Ruhlmann led all the way to defeat Criminal Type in the $1 million Santa Anita Handicap, and duplicated that decisive victory in the San Bernardino Handicap. But when the two of them came east for the Pimlico Special, Criminal Type turned the tables. And the 5-year-old showed just how good he is -- and how misleading his losses on the Santa Anita surface were -- with his triumph at Belmont Park.
In short, the form that horses displayed in California had little to do with the form they displayed in the East. And this spring's results might be codified into a few rules for future reference.
When a front-runner is not subjected to early pressure, and wins over a speed-favoring California track, he should be viewed with considerable skepticism.
Conversely, horses who are outrun for the lead, or who are off-the-pace runners by nature, should be upgraded when they move from a speed-favoring California strip to a "normal" eastern track.
But what the results of this spring yield, beside an important handicapping lesson, is an indictment of the racing at America's most successful track. Santa Anita has the nation's biggest handle and biggest purses, and it has the best horses, too (although a few chauvinistic New Yorkers still might disagree). The major intersectional races such as the Kentucky Derby and Breeders' Cup Classic have been dominated, in recent years, by horses from the West, and when a horse such as Criminal Type can whip the likes of Housebuster and Easy Goer, that result would seem the clinching proof of the West's superiority.
So it is utterly absurd for championship-quality racing to be conducted over a racing surface as fluky and unfair as Santa Anita's. The condition of the track was farcical when the Breeders' Cup was run there in 1986 and produced ridiculous winners like Capote and Skywalker, and it was obviously no better in 1990.
Santa Anita's management never seems to recognize that its track frequently permits inferior horses to win, simply because they possess one-dimensional speed. But after the results of this spring, particularly the failure of Mister Frisky and the success of Criminal Type, bettors around the country should never ignore this factor again.