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02/23/2005 ... Author Steve Byk concludes that this year's 3YOs aren't running nearly as fast as the sophomores of only one year ago. It could be that when it comes to picking this year's Derby winner, it will only make it that much easier to narrow the possibilities.

By Steve Byk

On Feb. 18 Gary West, the excellent race writer for the Ft. Worth Star-Telegram, wrote an edifying analysis of the Derby Trail scene. The veteran reporter opined that the early results of this year's Derby preps need to be taken with the proverbial "grain of salt" as historically, the winners of these events rarely have an impact on the Triple Crown.

West correctly explained that the Sort It Out's, Closing Argument's and Scipion's, horses that have made splashes in the January and February preps, are rarely around in March and April, or most importantly, the first Saturday in May. He went on to say that Monarchos, War Emblem, Funny Cide, Charismatic and Real Quiet, all were beaten at this time of year in their sophomore campaigns before going on to Derby glory.

All true. But there seems to be a bigger problem facing this crop of three year olds that transcends the reality that early season winners are typically left behind when the real running starts in the Gr. I preps in late March and April. The fact is that this group of sophomores is unusually slow. Make that shockingly slow.

Joe Cardello, the Daily Racing Form's Beyer Speed Figure analyst, offers a perspective of contenders' figs every year in the Derby edition of the paper. Last year, he projected the Derby's top 6 or 7 finishers based on the number of triple digit Beyers each of the entrants had run in their careers. Utilizing the Beyers as a measure of comparison, we looked at the past performances of every Triple Crown nominee from 2003-05.

By this time in 2003, of the 454 Triple Crown nominees, 30 had already run a Beyer of 100 or more (6.6%). Eventual Derby winner Funny Cide had logged a 103 at 2; third place finisher Peace Rules a 102 and 4th place runner Atswhatimtalknbout a 105. Here's a list of the 2003 Derby runners that had posted triple digit numbers before March 1, 2003:

2003 Derby finish-Horse-100+ BSF as of 3/1/03:

In addition to these, here are other 'Class of '03' horses that didn't make the Derby but had earned consideration at two or went on to good things later in their careers:

Last year, as Mare Reproductive Loss Syndrome (MRLS) began to show its effects on foal crops, claiming an estimated 500 foals, 434 colts and fillies were Triple Crown nominated and 19 had run a 100+ Beyer by March 1, 2004 (4.3%). The Derby trifecta of Smarty Jones (105), Lion Heart (103) and Imperialism (101) led the triple digit club by the time February ended. The 2004 Derby runners that earned 100+ Beyers by March 1, 2004:

2004 Derby finish-Horse-100+ BSF as of 3/1/04:

These other '04 sophomores were 100+ runners:

Which brings us to 2005. This is the crop most severely affected by MRLS, having taken an estimated 1,200 foals in Spring 2002, and reducing the Triple Crown nominations to 358, its lowest total in 20 years. Of these horses, a scant 10 have recorded a BSF of 100 or more through February 19, 2005 (2.8%). While the tragedy in the Bluegrass three years ago can account for denying the crop a certain number of potentially outstanding progeny, the 2.8% represents a decrease of more than 60% in 100+ Beyer-earning runners in just two years.

The 10 Crown-nominated 100+ BSF runners of the Class of '05 (Note that Going Wild has the distinction of being the first in the crop to 100+ Beyer in a route and a sprint):

2005 Triple Crown Nominees with 100+ BSF as of 2/23/05:

The facts from 2003 and 2004 project that at least one third of these horses will not only make the Derby field, but finish at the top of the chart. In fact, two years in a row, horses that had achieved a 100+ Beyer not only made the field and finished at the top of the chart, but were 4 of the first 5 finishers and among 5 of the top 7!

Considering that Afleet Alex, Declan's Moon and Rockport Harbor all will be making just two starts before the Derby and have already banked graded stake earnings, it seems barring injury, they are certainties to make the field the first Saturday in May. Diligent Prospect is hurt, and the start of Roman Ruler's campaign continues to be delayed. Proud Accolade remains highly questionable as a hopeful due to distance limitations, and Sweet Catomine's Derby plans will not become clear until at least the Santa Anita Oaks.

That leaves us with the three 2-prep candidates as well Going Wild, High Fly and Galloping Grocer. Based on what we have seen the last two years, it would appear that you can look to this group of six as the most serious candidates for a blanket of roses on May 7. Of these six, three (Rockport Harbor/Servis, Going Wild/Lukas, High Fly/Zito) may have a decided edge as colts trained by conditioners that have already won a Derby.

Given the reshuffled scheduling of several of the prep season's series of races, it's certainly possible that a speedy candidate emerges suddenly in the next two months as West suggests. But the trend of the last several years points more toward runners that have already demonstrated the ability to run fast by now. It happens that this group as a whole isn't running nearly as fast as three year olds of only one year ago. It could be that when it comes to picking this year's Derby winner, it will only make it that much easier to narrow the possibilities.

Steve Byk is a part-time writer covering horse-racing. His work has appeared on Bloodhorse.com.


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