Was The Saratoga Track Embarrassingly Fast for the Travers?

This week’s Let It Ride.com HOT TOPIC was posted by Gary West at Star-Telegram.com…take a read and VOICE AN OPINION!

THE TRAVERS REMAINS SOMEWHAT CONFUSING

So I sat down this morning to review Saturday’s stakes, look at a few replays and make some useful numbers that, if nothing else, would help me understand and analyze those races. But it was not a morning for clarity.

The only confident numbers I made this morning were these: two, for the pots of coffee I drank; three, for the aspirins I took; four, for the number of times my head hit my desk under an avalanche of uncertainty. And I’ll remain uncertain about just how good — or mediocre? — were Saturday’s Travers and King’s Bishop.

Here’s the problem. The Saratoga surface Saturday was embarrassingly speed-biased. The first six races on the main track were all won by the early leader, who on such a surface also turned out to be the middle leader and late leader and only leader. Litigation Risk (first), Alexandra Rylee (second), Uncle Mo (fifth), Rapport (ninth), Rightly So (10th) and Discreetly Mine (11th) all led from start to finish. In fact, in the Ballerina, Rightly So, Warbling and Jessica Is Back went around the track 1-2-3 for the entire seven-furlong distance.

The situation, as you would expect, affected strategy and tactics. Trainer Todd Pletcher said after the King’s Bishop that because of the way “the track was playing” they, meaning he and jockey John Velazquez, felt they had to go to the lead immediately with Discreetly Mine. He’s typicaly a stalker type, but on Saturday’s track, they used his speed to toss down a 44.11 half-mile and get the jump on Bulldogger, who capitulated when unable to grab the early advantage.

Here’s the other problem. The Saratoga surface seemed to slow down throughout the day. Litigation Risk is a capable 3-year-old, but he had won only once in his career prior to Saturday’s outing. And yet he ran seven-eighths of a mile in 1:22.11, or about five lengths faster than Discreetly Mine’s 1:23.16 in the King’s Bishop. Is Litigation Risk better than Discreetly Mine? Of course not.

Uncle Mo, a dominating winner in his debut, is no doubt an exceptional 2-year-old. Based on his performance Saturday, I’d say he’s one of the most talented juveniles yet to emerge this year. But is he better than Discreetly Mine? Uncle Mo raced three-quarters of a mile Saturday, but relatively, without an adjustment for the assumption that the track slowed down throughout day, his performance would appear superior to Discreetly Mine’s. Uncle Mo’s final time (1:09.21) was also about two lengths faster than Rapport’s (1:09.66) Victory Ride. And Rightly So (1:22.58) also ran faster (three lengths) than Discreetly Mine, whose final number won’t reflect the quality of his effort.

The outcomes weren’t surprising. On such a speed-biased track, Rightly So suddenly looked like the one to beat in the Ballerina, but the winning times on the day, when compared, don’t make any sense unless the track, for whatever reason, was slowing down. And slowing down. And slowing down some more, until it was downright slow by the time the Travers came along. Exactly how much the track slowed down from race to race is hard to say.

Because it was the only two-turn race of the day on the main track, the Travers is doubly difficult to analyze. But I suspect Afleet Express and Fly Down are better than that final time of 2:03.28 might suggest. After all, it was nearly seven lengths back to First Dude. As for a number, for my personal purposes, I’m giving the Travers a tentative 105. Very tentative, as in coupled with a question mark that’s so big it could be seen from a jet passing overhead.

But what Saturday’s races at Saratoga suggest in retrospect is how difficult it is to make numbers, or speed figures, which are intended to measure and quantify performances. Sometimes the numbers just fall into place like sediment. But sometimes, they’re very subjective and tentative and, yes, uncertain, no matter whose numbers they might be. That’s something handicappers and horseplayers should always, I think, keep in mind.

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