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Improbable But Not Impossible

by Andrew Offerman

A lot of people, myself included, have been left confused, frustrated, irritated and a whole host of other words that can’t be used on this blog as a result of the Kentucky Derby. Mine That Bird, the public’s choice to finish last, somehow shocked the wagering public and ran to one of the most impressive Derby victories in years. However, there are a few things about this race and this story that a majority of handicappers and racing enthusiasts have ignored.

First, the horse wasn’t as god awful as people want the public to believe. Sure, his lifetime speed figures weren’t overly impressive; however, his Thoro-Graph numbers suggested that the horse would be more likely to run in the middle of the pack than he would have been to finish dead last. Additionally, Churchill was only the second real dirt track that the horse had ever set hoof on.

Second, Beyer’s Speed Figures have been taken as gospel for a long time within this industry. Oftentimes they’ve been cited as evidence that trainers must be cheating and as “evidence” that a horse improved more than anyone thought possible. However, it’s starting to become readily apparent that they are more of an art and less of a science in today’s racing world, especially when synthetic surfaces are involved. Numbers are “adjusted” all the time and many times horses performance when switching between racing surfaces doesn’t transfer as expected (I Want Revenge; Career Best BSF 92 on polytrack and he ran a 113 in his next race at Aqueduct). Maybe Mine That Bird was more talented than people realize when he won four consecutive stakes at Woodbine as a two-year-old.

Furthermore, people have not taken a close enough look at the fact that Advice came out of the Sunland Derby and won the Lexington Stakes, improving his Beyer by 17 points in the process. Mine That Bird defeated Advice by a length and three quarters in the Sunland Derby and a similar improvement in his Beyer Speed Figure would have resulted in a 98 in the Derby, not too far off from the 105 that he actually earned. Granted, Advice ran poorly in the Derby, but that may have been a result of him running a career best race in the Lexington and coming back on only two week’s rest.

Third, if you discount the Speed Figures and location of Mine That Bird’s last two races, his racing pattern revealed that the horse was basically running himself into shape. First start off the layoff the horse was turned loose on the lead, probably because he was a little rank after four months off, and lost by a desperate neck. In his next start, he makes a huge premature move, actually takes the lead, and then tires late. This was probably a result of a little bit of a bounce and a lack of a solid conditioning base. Many handicappers would agree that this horse should then be primed for a top effort where he’ll likely be able to sit off the pace and sustain his run throughout the stretch, exactly what he did on Derby Day.

Fourth, Calvin Borel has now pulled off an amazing move in the Derby two times in the past three years. The charge into the first turn of the Derby has undoubtedly ruined the chances of numerous Derby competitors that were not ready to deal with the traffic and unable to settle down throughout the race. Borel has now taken two horses well off the pace, basically put them into a comfort zone early, and has unleashed an amazing run though the stretch. Is it possible that keeping a horse, any horse, relaxed towards the back of the pack saves more energy that anyone has previously realized?

Obviously, the result is still puzzling, and one simple factor can’t account for this win, but it’s important to realize that a large part of the shock may be simply because he was running in New Mexico. Maybe the trainer has just been blessed with a horse who has trained himself into shape, was much more talented as a two-year-old than the public believed and was ready to run the best race of his career while taking advantage of a substantial bias.

It is sad that many stakeholders within the industry immediately question the legitimacy of his race and want to chalk up his effort to the use of performance enhancing drugs. Churchill has put in an extreme drug testing procedure to ensure that any illegal substances will be found and everyone is innocent until proven guilty. The sport needs to adopt these policies at additional racetracks in order to change public perception so that this is no longer many handicappers’ first reaction. How will the public ever improve it’s perception of the industry when any better than expected performance is immediately tarnished by suspected drug use by those within the industry?

One thing is for certain, his performances throughout the remainder of the Triple Crown Series, as well as the remainder of his career, will be watched much more closely than anyone could have ever imagined a few days ago.