Whether it was last week or Labor Day weekend, one question is constantly burned in the minds of horsemen and handicappers about every candidate for the Kentucky Derby. Can he get the 1¼ miles?
Although that question does not have to be answered this year until Sept. 5, horses might already be providing answers to the negative. Short of that they might also leave some doubt that will influence bettors for the next four months. And believe it or not, one of trainer Bob Baffert’s big three still has work to do to prove that he can compete at the Derby distance.
Even though he won his division of the Grade 1 Arkansas Derby last Saturday by six lengths, Charlatan covered the last furlong in 13.16 seconds and the last three in 38.81. Although he was geared down by jockey Martín García, that is still slow, and the clock historically has been unforgiving to easy winners in nine-furlong preps.
This is where the Final Fractions Theory comes into play. Pioneered by Kentucky turf writer-turned-publicist Jennie Rees, it is a formula that measures the end of the last 1⅛-mile prep for every Derby candidate by posing a two-part question. Did the horse run the final furlong in 13 seconds or less and/or the last three furlongs in 38 seconds or less? Of the last 30 Derby winners, 27 got at least one yes. There were 23 that got a yes to both, including last year’s promoted winner Country House. Even if stewards had not disqualified him, Maximum Security also got a pair of yeses.
The idea is a horse running sub-:13/:38 final fractions through 1⅛ miles still has enough in the tank to be competitive for another eighth of a mile. Rees said she came up with the formula to quantify something that was suggested to her by a trainer.
“Phil Thomas came up to me some years ago and said, ‘I bet if you looked at it, horses that won the Derby came fast the last quarter-mile of their last prep,’” Rees said when VSiN outlined the theory in 2017. “The problem is I couldn’t compute that because of how fractions are published for a 1⅛-mile race. But I could compute the last eighth and the last three-eighths, and I found there is a pattern, definitely.”
Rees’s Final Fractions Theory does not discern the difference between a horse being pushed to the wire vs. one that is wrapped up as Charlatan was. That is work left for handicappers who also may look somewhat askance at Nadal. A 4-1 co-favorite in the Kentucky Derby futures at William Hill Nevada, his three-length victory in the more competitive second division of the Arkansas Derby was punctuated by final fractions of 12.71 and 38.39, giving him one yes and one no in the Final Fractions Theory.
Tiz The Law – the other futures co-favorite – appears to fail the test on both counts. Also geared down in his 4¼-length win in the Florida Derby, he covered the last furlong in 13.21 and the last three in 38.02. But since the latter time could be rounded to 38.0, that gives Tiz The Law a qualified yes.
Of the top 25 horses on the Road to the Kentucky Derby leader board, 19 raced at least nine furlongs in their last start. Only four were inside both the :13 and :38 threshold, including Risen Star first-division winner Mr. Monomoy and runner-up Enforceable, Jeff Ruby winner Field Pass and Louisiana Derby runner-up Ny Traffic. Other than Nadal, Louisiana Derby also-rans Major Fed and Modernist turned in sub-:13 final furlongs without getting inside 38.0 over the final three.
Complicating this short list are the Jeff Ruby having been run on a synthetic track and the Louisiana Derby being raced for the first time at 9½ furlongs, making it necessary to extrapolate a chart that only shows final fractions over 1½ and 3½ furlongs.
None of this may ultimately matter, since it is likely that every Derby horse will have run at last one more nine-furlong race before Sept. 5. If nothing else, though, this exercise reveals flaws in the ever popular eye test, which can lead to a lot of money being bet prematurely on horses that win by multiple lengths against what might be inferior rivals.
Fortunately, we have the whole summer to distill this.
Racing notes and opinions
According to various reports, the following Kentucky Derby contenders have targeted these upcoming races: Maxfield, idle since last fall, for the Grade 3 Matt Winn on May 23 at Churchill Downs. Authentic and Honor A. P., one-two in the San Felipe Stakes, on June 6 for the Grade 1 Santa Anita Derby. Tiz The Law, winner of the Florida Derby, for an undetermined race early this summer at Belmont Park or Saratoga.
There was more than a little confusion Wednesday about when the Preakness Stakes will be run. Originally set for next Saturday, it was first reported by WBAL-TV in Baltimore to be rescheduled for Saturday, Oct. 3. But then The Stronach Group, which runs the Preakness at Pimlico Race Course, strongly denied that any date was set, and the TV station walked back its story. Finally, The Associated Press reported that three dates are being considered – one in July, another in August and Oct. 3.
While Stronach executives at Santa Anita Park wait for Los Angeles County leaders to give their blessing, they are still planning to resume racing next Friday. The co-owned Golden Gate Fields in northern California got the green light this week from Alameda County and will race again starting Thursday. This will make for a busy week of openers or re-openers. Churchill Downs starts its delayed spring meet next Saturday.
Wise Dan and Mark Casse are the biggest names in the new class being inducted to the National Museum of Racing and Hall of Fame. Wise Dan was Horse of the Year in 2012 and 2013, winning the Breeders’ Cup Mile both years. In a career that started 42 years ago Casse has trained four Eclipse Award winners and five Canadian champions and is already in the Canadian Racing Hall of Fame. Nineteenth-century horse Tom Bowling, Preakness-winning jockey Darrel McHargue, breeder Alice Headley Chandler, trainer and steward Keene Daingerfield Jr. and racing executive George Widener Jr. are also in the class of 2020. The induction ceremony is usually held during the Saratoga summer but, well, you know.
American-owned Sottsass is expected to be an odds-on favorite Monday at ParisLongchamp in the $97,434 Group 2 Prix d’Harcourt, the biggest feature on the first day of racing in France after an eight-week coronavirus break. A 4-year-old brother of 2018 U.S. female turf champion Sistercharlie, Sottsass is starting for the first time since he finished third last October in the Group 1 Prix de l’Arc de Triomphe. Victor Ludorum, an undefeated 3-year-old trained by French legend André Fabre, is the other big name on the ParisLongchamp card. He will be odds-on in the $60,622 Group 3 Prix de Fontainebleau. First post Monday is at 4:55 a.m. EDT. The Fontainebleau is scheduled for 6:55 a.m.; the Harcourt for 8:05 a.m. There were 1,069 horses nominated for the three race cards Monday at ParisLongchamp, Toulouse and Compiègne.
Ron Flatter’s weekly racing column is posted every Friday morning – more frequently for big races – at VSiN.com. You may also hear the Ron Flatter Racing Pod posted Friday mornings at VSiN.com/podcasts. On the current episode Las Vegas handicapper Richard Eng discusses betting during the pandemic. Trainer Ken McPeek talks about Kentucky Oaks favorite Swiss Skydiver and her aim to race next month in England. From Paris, Racing Post’s Scott Burton handicaps Monday’s resumption of racing in France. The Ron Flatter Racing Pod is available via Apple, Google, Spotify, Stitcher and at VSiN.com/podcasts and is sponsored by 1/ST BET.