A few weeks after Tiz the Law’s impressive victory in the 2020 Travers, the daily Saratoga racing show on Fox Sports showed a video of a post-Travers workout by the colt.  On-air personality and former jockey Richard Migliore commented that he thought Tiz the Law was not as energetic and sharp as previously, though he said he would wait for future workouts before confirming his view.  This expert opinion indicated to me that the 1 ¼ mile Travers may have taken more out of the colt than it looked like during the race…and that another 1 ¼ mile race in less than a month in the Kentucky Derby might be problematic.  When Tiz the Law could not get past Authentic in the Churchill Downs’ stretch, Migliore’s astute observation came to mind.

With no Triple Crown in the offing, the connections of Tiz the Law might consider skipping the Preakness on October 3rd and give the colt a breather to freshen him for the Breeders’ Cup Classic on November 7th at Keeneland.  Then there are several lucrative races to choose among in early 2021 in Florida, Saudi Arabia, and Dubai.

Both of Tiz the Law’s career losses came at Churchill Downs, with the initial loss attributed to a muddy track and jockey error.  Maybe he just doesn’t take to the surface.  Or likely the fact that Authentic ran the seventh fastest Kentucky Derby ever (2:00.61) was why Tiz the Law ran second.

Like many jockeys before him, Mike Smith chose the wrong mount.  He left Authentic for A. P. Honor, apparently on the thinking that the latter was better suited to the Derby distance.

Bob Baffert’s win with Authentic ties him with Ben A. Jones of Calumet Farm as the winningest trainer in Kentucky Derby history, with six victories each.  At age 67, Baffert could very well set the record.  Remarkably, he has won three of the last six Kentucky Derby races and a pair of Triple Crowns.

Pari-mutuel handle for the Kentucky Oaks/ Kentucky Derby cards declined almost 50% from 2019.  It will be informative to see to what extent this decrease, coupled with the loss of revenue from 150,000 or so on-track spectators, weighs on Churchill Downs’ stock on Tuesday and in ensuing days.

The Kentucky governor’s conspicuous absence from Churchill Downs on Derby day may be a first, at least in modern history.  The tradition is for the governor to present the trophy to the winning owner, but 2020 has been anything but a year for tradition.

Kentucky Oaks winner Shedaresthedevil is co-owned by Qatar Racing Ltd. (a subsidiary of Qatar Investment & Project Development Holding Company or QIPCO), which is controlled by four brothers who are members of the ruling family of Qatar.  Launched in 2012, Qatar Racing has become a major player across the globe, racing in Australia, Britain, France Germany, Ireland, New Zealand, and the United States.

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In recent years, much has been written and said about the alleged declining durability of North American racehorses and how Thoroughbreds have increasingly been bred for speed at the expense of stamina.  As one indicator of the American Thoroughbred’s ability to carry speed over 1 ¼ miles, I looked at data from the Kentucky Derby to see how the winners’ times have trended since the Derby distance was changed in 1896 from 1 ½ miles to 1 ¼ miles.  Following is a summary of my calculations condensed mostly into ten-year components.

Average winning time for:

2010-2019.  2:03.92
2001-2009.  2:01.99
1990-2000.  2:02.27
1980-1989.  2:02.46
1970-1979.  2:01.78
1960-1969.  2:01.68
1950-1959.  2:02.54
1940-1949.  2:04.90
1930-1939.  2:04.54
1920-1929.  2:06.70
1910-1919.  2:06.36
1900-1909.  2:09.58
1896-1899.  2:07.81

(From 2001 to the present the Derby was clocked in tenths of seconds. From 1906 through 2000 it was clocked in one-fifth seconds. From 1896 through 1905 the race was clocked in one-fourth seconds.)

As speed figures demonstrate, such factors as track condition and weather affect performance on any given day.  With this in mind, it is still revealing to look at the twists and turns of Kentucky Derby winning times since 1896.  From 1896 through the 1930s, winning times markedly improved…and leveled off in the 1940s. Subsequently, average winning times decreased in the 1950s through the decade of the 1960s and stabilized in the 1970s.  Since then, average winning times have increased slightly. 

It could be that the American Thoroughbred reached its genetic speed ceiling for a 1 ¼ classic race fifty to sixty years ago and the breed has regressed somewhat since…or at least not improved. While no hard conclusions can be drawn with a data set from one classic race, it is plausible that North American foal crops of recent decades are not as suited genetically for the 10-furlong distance as their predecessors from the ’60s, and ’70s.  Another hypothesis is that trainers in the modern era are not as skilled as their forerunners in preparing racehorses for classic distances. These explanations are, of course, not mutually exclusive and both likely contain an element of truth. 

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Linda Rice is arguably the best female racehorse trainer in the United States.  Until recently, she trained the 3-year-old colt Max Player.  After Max Player finished third in the 2020 Travers, his owners, George Hall and SportBLX, moved the colt from Ms. Rice’s barn to Steve Asmussen’s stable.  Mr. Hall said that Ms. Rice had done a “spectacular job” with Max Player, but wanted a trainer with “experience and infrastructure at Churchill” to prep the colt for the Kentucky Derby on September 5.

Regardless of how accustomed and hardened a trainer becomes to the vagaries of dealing with owners, episodes like this one have to hurt psychologically, even if owners’ reasons for moving their horses make sense.  However, in sports, incidents of coaches and managers (and horse trainers) being terminated are so commonplace that they are taken for granted by the media and public. 

In the National Football League, for example, some of the most successful head coaches of all time were fired at least once in their careers, including George Allen, Paul Brown, Bill Belichick, Tony Dungy, Jimmy Johnson, Tom Landry, and Mike Shanahan.  A similar list could be comprised in any major sport. 

It should be of some consolation to an accomplished horse trainer like Ms. Rice that plausibly the greatest coach in NFL history, Bill Belichick, was fired.  On the other hand, from a horse owner’s perspective, it is instructive to reflect on the fact that, since 1969, the storied Pittsburgh Steelers have won six Super Bowls and had only three head coaches. Sticking with competent individuals in good and bad times is a path to enduring success.

Linda Rice handled the transfer of Max Player with aplomb and class by tweeting “We are disappointed to see him go, but we wish George Hall and SportBLX the best of luck.” 

Here’s wishing Linda “best of luck” in eventually winning the Kentucky Derby.

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