Now that you know a little something
about it, let's examine a few races and see not only how they
played out, but why.
The 1985 Kentucky Derby The lukewarm favorite was Chief's Crown,
but five or six horses were considered to have a good chance
to win. One of them was a front-runner, Spend A Buck, ridden
by Angel Cordero. There was another speed horse in the race,
owned by the Yankees' George Steinbrenner.
The gate opened, Cordero sent Spend A
Buck to the front as expected, and Steinbrenner's horse stumbled,
just as War Emblem stumbled at the start of the 2002 Belmont
-- and suddenly, only a furlong into the 10-furlong race, Spend
A Buck was 5 lengths in front. Each of the other jockeys had
to decide whether to engage Cordero's horse in a speed duel to
soften him up for the homestretch (which would soften their own
mounts up as well) or wait for someone else to do it. Every jockey
elected to wait. Spend A Buck entered the backstretch with an
uncontested 6-length lead, and the race was over. Turning into
the stretch he was every bit as fresh as the horses who were
trying to catch him, and he won by 5 lengths without drawing
a deep breath.
The 1955 Kentucky Derby The heavy favorite
was Nashua, with Eddie Arcaro riding him. Nashua had had a pair
of all-out wars with Summer Tan, ridden by Eric Guerin, and Arcaro
felt that was the horse to beat.
An unknown California horse, Swaps --
who would not remain unknown for long -- got a comfortable 2-length
lead going around the far turn. Nashua was laying third, a length
ahead of Summer Tan, and Arcaro didn't want to use his horse
up and soften him for Summer Tan's stretch run, so he kept him
under light restraint. And he kept him, and he kept him -- and
by the time he realized that Summer Tan was never going to pass
him, and Swaps was running far too easily at the front end, it
was too late and he never could catch the California colt.
The 1968 Suburban and Brooklyn Handicaps
Two of the great ones hooked up. Damascus, the 1967 Horse of
the Year, winner of 13 of his last 15 starts, possessor of the
most powerful stretch run in racing, carried 133 pounds -- far
above scale -- in the Suburban Handicap. His lifelong rival,
Dr. Fager, winner at the time of 15 of 17 lifetime starts, and
perhaps the fastest front-runner in history, carried 132 pounds.
There were only five horses in the race.
Every horse was good, though the other three weren't quite in
a class with the top two -- but they didn't have to be, since
this was a handicap, and they were in receipt of 15 to 20 pounds
each. But the point is, none of them was willing to sacrifice
himself on the alter of pacemaking to soften Dr. Fager up for
Damascus. As a result, Dr. Fager broke on top, and when he had
run half a mile in 47 seconds, the race was as good as over.
Damascus made a run at him in the homestretch, but never seriously
threatened him and came in second.
They met two weeks later in the Brooklyn
Handicap. This time Dr. Fager carried 135 pounds to 131 on Damascus
-- but this time, Damascus had help. His trainer also entered
his stablemate Hedevar, the previous year's champion sprinter.
Hedevar wasn't there to win; his trainer didn't even care if
the jockey pulled him up once his job was done. And his job was
to force the headstrong Dr. Fager into such rapid early fractions
that Damascus would have a chance to catch a tiring horse in
The gate opened, Dr. Fager broke on top,
as usual, and Hedevar broke almost as fast. He got within a neck
of Dr. Fager, who absolutely wouldn't be passed. They ran the
first quarter mile in a phenomenal 21 3/5 seconds, the half in
44 seconds flat -- and even though Hedevar tossed in the towel
and Dr. Fager found himself 3 lengths in front, the race was
as good as over. Damascus moved up on the far turn, got the leg-weary
Dr. Fager in his sights, ran him down in the homestretch, and
beat him to the wire by 2 lengths.
The 1977 Belmont Stakes In the Kentucky
Derby, For the Moment had pressed front- running Seattle Slew.
They'd run the first 6 furlongs in 1:10, and Slew went on to
win rather handily while For the Moment finished 5th.
In the Preakness, it was Comorant's turn.
He was heads apart with Seattle Slew after 6 furlongs in 1:09
3/5. Slew won by a daylight margin, while Cormorant faded to
In the Belmont, having seen what happened
to For the Moment and Cormorant, no one was willing to press
the pace, and as a result Seattle Slew had a comfortable lead
after running the first 6 furlongs in 1:14 1/5. A horse runs
a length in a fifth of a second. All any fan had to do was look
at the time, realize that Seattle Slew had just been allowed
to run the first 6 furlongs 21 lengths slower than the Derby
and 23 lengths slower than the Preakness, and you knew that no
one was going to catch him on this particular day. (He won, eased
up, by 4 lengths.)
The 1979 Belmont Stakes Affirmed was
our last Triple Crown winner, back in 1978. But we should have
had one in 1979. He was good enough, and fit enough, and no one
in the field was within five lengths of him in quality. He was
Spectacular Bid, coming into the race off 12 wins in a row, including
the Derby and Preakness.
He had just one problem. He was ridden
by a 19-year-old kid named Ronnie Franklin, a totally-inexperienced
jockey who didn't have all that much talent. But when you've
got a team that's won twelve in a row, even if a few of them
were closer than they should have been, you don't break it up
and hire a new jockey, especially for the most important race
in your horse's life.
So Ronnie Franklin was aboard Spectacular
Bid when the gates opened and ten horses began the grueling,
12-furlong contest. A 30-to-1 longshot who'd never won a stakes
race in his life raced off to a long lead. Franklin had Spectacular
Bid in second place, running easily along the rail. This in itself
was unusual, because usually the Bid came from the back of the
pack with a powerful late run.
There was another unusual thing. General
Assembly, the horse with the most early speed in the field, the
horse who had set the pace in the Derby and Preakness, was three
lengths behind Spectacular Bid. His jockey, the experienced Angel
Cordero, realized that the leader was setting a suicidal pace
and wanted no part of it.
When they'd run almost half a mile, the
leader was still 6 lengths in front, and Franklin panicked. Fearful
that the longshot would get an insurmountable lead, and unaware
that they'd just run the half mile in 46 seconds, a murderous
pace for the shorter Derby let alone the Belmont, Franklin sent
Spectacular Bid after the frontrunner. He caught him in less
than a quarter mile, and the longshot threw in the towel without
a fight. Suddenly Franklin found himself four lengths in front
with half a mile to go, and all the sportswriters who knew nothing
about racing felt the race was as good as over.
It was - but not the way they thought. The Bid was four lengths
in front, true - but he'd used up too much energy catching that
meaningless frontrunner, and his time for the first mile was
much too fast. He turned into the stretch with a diminishing
two-length lead...and then Coastal, whom he'd never met before,
and General Assembly, whom he'd beaten like a drum all year long,
caught and passed him. So much for the Triple Crown.
Franklin was fired the next morning - one day too late - and
Bill Shoemaker was hired. Shoemaker rode Spectacular Bid for
the rest of the Bid's career, losing only one more race in the
next two years. But thanks to a kid who couldn't judge pace,
he lost the race he had to win.
The 2002 Belmont Stakes Every now and
then strategy goes right out the window. You plot and you plan
for weeks, and two seconds into the race everything's changed.
It happened in the 2002 Belmont Stakes.
Everyone knew War Emblem was the horse to beat. He'd been a surprise
winner of the Kentucky Derby (which, in retrospect, after examining
his pedigree and his last couple of races, wasn't so surprising
after all), and had won the Preakness just as easily. He was
a front-running horse possessed of remarkable speed, and enough
stamina to win the 10-furlong Derby by a large margin. Every
trainer and jockey had to decide what to do: run with War Emblem
and perhaps use their own horse up in the process, or let him
go and hope he couldn't last for a mile and a half.
It became meaningless in less than a
second. The hard ground broke under War Emblem's feet as the
gate opened, and he fell to his knees. He was up and running
a second later, but for all practical purposes his Belmont was
Not all the other jockeys saw what had
happened, but they all saw that War Emblem wasn't on or close
to the lead. What to do now?
If only one jock had decided to go for
the lead, he could probably have set a sane, reasonable pace
- but four of them went for it, and they began running too fast
for such a long, grueling race. And then War Emblem sealed their
fates. Left at the post, he moved up along the rail. His jockey,
knowing how much ground he had lost and how much energy he had
expended already, wasn't asking him for speed, but he had a champion's
competitive heart, and damned if he didn't forge to the front
half a mile from home.
It had taken everything he had left to
get there, and he would soon fade to 8th place -- but the other
jockeys didn't know that. They just knew that today the horse
they had to beat had come from behind and suddenly he was in
the lead, and they pushed their horses even harder -- and by
the head of the homestretch, after a mile and a quarter, every
horse that was on or within 6 lengths of the lead was cooked.
The two trailers, longshot Sarava and second-choice Medaglia
d'Oro, ridden by two jockeys who had kept their wits about them,
passed all the others as if they were standing still, ran neck-and-neck
to the wire, and Sarava became the longest-priced winner in Belmont
The 1984 Breeders Cup Classic When John
Henry, one of the two contenders for Horse of the Year honors,
scratched, the other contender, Slew o' Gold, was made the heavy
favorite for the 10-furlong Breeders Cup Classic. He hadn't lost
all year, hadn't even worked up much of a sweat. This was to
be the final race of his career, at his favorite distance, and
he was carrying 126 pounds, a burden he'd been winning with for
But he had a physical problem: a quarter
crack on his hoof. They flew his very own blacksmith out and
gave him a bar shoe that would protect the tender area, but his
jockey, Angel Cordero, was very aware that the horse wasn't quite
The race began, Slew o' Gold lay 5th,
about 10 lengths off the pace, and then made his move turning
into the stretch. By mid- stretch, with an eighth of a mile to
go, he was only a length behind the two leaders, Wild Again and
Gate Dancer, and gaining ground, though not as rapidly as Cordero
had expected. And, because he was aware of that foot, and of
the fact that Slew o' Gold, while he was running a winning race
wasn't running a devastating one, Cordero chose to save ground
and go _between_ Gate Dancer and Wild Again, rather than lose
ground while angling to the outside in order to get a clear run
to the wire...
...and as Slew o' Gold began moving up,
Gate Dancer moved to his left and the hole closed. It was too
late for Cordero to slow his horse down, take him outside, and
put him to a drive again, so he stayed where he was, hoping Wild
Again would bear in or Gate Dancer would bear out sometime in
the final 70 yards so his mount could forge to the front.
It never happened, and Slew o' Gold, demonstrably the best horse
in the race, lost for the only time all year -- and, it turned
out, simultaneously lost Horse of the Year honors to John Henry,
the horse who stayed in the barn.
The 1976 Marlboro Cup And sometimes strategy
-- either right strategy or wrong strategy -- means nothing.
The great gelding Forego, seeking his
third successive Horse of the Year title, was entered in the
He was assigned 137 pounds, more weight than any horse had won
with since Dr. Fager, and more weight that any horse had won
with at more than a mile in close to half a century. By rights,
he should scratched rather than accept that burden, but he didn't.
It rained all morning and most of the
afternoon, and the track was officially labeled muddy. Forego
hated the mud. He had chronically sore ankles, and a misstep
in the mud could end his career. Even if he didn't take that
misstep, he was probably 5 lengths better on a fast track.
He was giving 20 pounds -- 10 lengths
-- to millionaire Honest Pleasure, and even more weight to other
top-caliber stakes winners.
He was running without mud caulks.
Once he'd possessed some tactical early
speed, but as he grew older it deserted him, and these days he
came from well behind. On a muddy track, that meant he'd probably
pick up 15 pounds of mud on his chest and neck -- a gift of 7
1/2 lengths to his rivals.
He drew an outside post position, and
never got close to the rail. Going around the far turn, Shoemaker
had to go six horses wide -- another 6-length gift to the front
They straightened away in the stretch,
with a quarter mile to go. Honest Pleasure had just taken the
lead. Forego was eleventh, floundering in the mud, 17 lengths
So much for strategy. So much for luck.
This was Forego, and from somewhere deep within himself he found
a way to ignore the mud striking his face, to ignore the footing,
to ignore the 137- pound impost, and just run hell-for-leather
down the stretch. He was 9 lengths back at the furlong pole,
4 lengths back at the sixteenth pole, 2 lengths back with 50
yards to go, and just when everyone knew that valiant effort
would fall short, he found yet another gear and caught Honest
Pleasure 10 yards from the wire and won by a nose.
It's performances like that, when a equine
athlete is so good and so determined to win that everything you
know about analyzing a race becomes meaningless, that it truly
is the Sport of Kings.