ELMONT, N. Y. -- Horseplayers are prone to endless frustrations, from onerous takeouts to odd betting menus, and short fields to uninspiring cards, to name just a few. But nothing is getting the goat of horseplayers more these days than races that look like they will have honest paces devolving into paceless processions.
If you can't depend on Horse B to go up and keep Horse A honest on the front end like he's supposed to, then how do you handicap? When this happens, how can racing distinguish itself as an intellectual form of gambling?
This comes to mind after Saturday's Belmont Derby. Oscar Performance won the Belmont Derby, which itself was not a surprise. Oscar Performance is a good horse. He won the Breeders' Cup Juvenile Turf last fall, and won it honestly. But Oscar Performance also turned in two dud performances to begin this year, and then won the Pennine Ridge in his most recent start, which may or may not have been the rebound many trumpeted it to be. It was difficult to tell for sure considering Oscar Performance was allowed a walking, uncontested lead in that race. In other words, the jury was still out on the 2017 version of Oscar Performance.
On Saturday, Oscar Performance figured to encounter more pace pressure than he did in the Pennine Ridge, if not actually be denied the early lead, thanks to Whitecliffsofdover, who had rabbit for the other Aidan O'Brien-trained European shipper Homesman written all over him, and possibly Called To The Bar, who appeared to set an active pace winning a Group 3 in France last time out. But neither was ridden with any aggressiveness early in the Belmont Derby, and as early as the point of the first turn, Oscar Performance was again sprung on a much, much easier early lead than many very astute handicappers ever anticipated.
The point of running major stakes races is to find out how good, really, are the horses who run in them. We all can disagree on how good those horses are after the big races. But while we know Oscar Performance is a good horse, how can anyone know how good he really might be when he is gifted one easy trip after another?
Moreover, how can horseplayers summon the courage to bet when you can't rely on races setting up they way they figure to, or should, on paper; or when, because certain horses have been gifted one incredibly easy trip after another, we don't know what these horses can actually do?
This is a problem. It really is. And it's not new. I've addressed it here before. And for every time it happens in a big stakes race, it happens multiple times in undercard races. It is valuable information to know when one speed horse will not challenge another early, and it is damaging to the game when that valuable information is kept to only a few select insiders.
* Even with comprehensive information at hand, some results you can't see even after the race (if you're honest with yourself), and that's how Keen Ice's mild upset of Belmont's Suburban was for me.
Keen Ice, who was still eligible to a second-level allowance race going into Saturday, not only won for the first time since he upset Triple Crown winner American Pharoah in the 2015 Travers Stakes, he also did so in fairly implausible fashion. He rallied from off the pace despite the Suburban being a slow-paced race.
Okay, Matt King Coal was found wanting at this class level, and heavily favored Shaman Ghost came up empty after trying to keep Matt King Coal at least somewhat honest on the front end. But, still, race dynamics have to count for something, no?
* Taking nothing away from New Money Honey, but last year's Breeders' Cup Juvenile Fillies Turf winner must be living right this year. She turned a walking lead (where have I heard that before?) in last month's Wonder Again into her first victory of the year, and she got a good trip again winning the Belmont Oaks, stalking a contested early pace from fairly close range, and getting significant first run on the favored French Oaks runner-up Sistercharlie to prevail.
I don't know about you, but as much ground as Sistercharlie had to make up on New Money Honey turning for home, I still thought she could and would do it, because I envisioned her producing the kind of explosive late brush good European shippers have. But even though Sistercharlie gained steadily on New Money Honey to narrowly miss, she never really showed the turn of foot I was expecting. She was more of a grinder.
Or maybe New Money Honey is that good.
* We haven't seen the 2017 version of defending champion sprinter Drefong yet (though his works suggest he's pretty close to a start), but there isn't any doubt that the best sprinter so far this year to have raced is Mind Your Biscuits. As awesome as he was winning the Dubai Golden Shaheen on the Dubai World Cup undercard -- and he was about 87 miles the best in that one -- his return in the Belmont Sprint Championship was of similar high quality. I mean, he just overpowered his field while leaving the strong impression he was doing less than his best. Good stuff.
* Every wise guy on the planet, including yours truly, thought throughout the run-up to the Kentucky Derby that Practical Joke was a horse crying out for a return to one-turn races. Well, he got that in Belmont's Dwyer, and Practical Joke responded with an explosive victory.
Practical Joke's effort was so compelling in a visual sense, overcoming a total lack of racing room in upper stretch and having to sharply angle out, that it might lead his connections to stretch him back out to two turns again in the Haskell at Monmouth. But for those who still view Practical Joke as a one-turn horse, his Dwyer makes him one of the ones for Saratoga's Allen Jerkens Memorial (formerly the King's Bishop).
* If Practical Joke does run in the Haskell, he'll be a bet-against for me, and then a potential bet-back in the Jerkens.
* For some, the big disappointment in the Dwyer was Battalion Runner, who dropped anchor in upper stretch after setting a comfortable and largely uncontested pace. But Battalion Runner was making his first start since finishing second in the Wood Memorial, a performance that was greatly enhanced by a profound speed bias.
* She was beating only a Grade 3 field, including a Time and Motion who seemed significantly below her best form, but Dona Bruja was still very impressive winning the Modesty at Arlington. There is every reason to believe she will do well against a much higher level of competition.