Who's in your saddle?
I'm not old enough or dumb enough to use words like "ever," but jockeys will play a bigger role in Friday and Saturday's Breeders' Cup World Championships than perhaps any major racing stage we've witnessed in at least the past few decades.
When Keeneland introduced Polytrack to major-league American races, jockeys rode it like it was moon sand or broken shards of glass. They tip-toed through ludicrous paces, desperately trying to save enough horse to have something left for the stretch drive. That's not just an observation, but there are numbers to back it up.
The average opening half-mile in route races during the 2007 Keeneland spring meeting was a pedestrian :49.59 seconds. That's the meeting everyone still remembers because of the laughable early waltz in the Blue Grass Stakes that upended Street Sense. Now compare that to the :48.36 average for the recently completed fall meeting in Lexington, and you'll see that after about 600 races, finally some once-thought norms are changing. The final times have remained remarkably steady over those meetings, but the way they were accomplished has become more American and less voodoo -- speed early is okay, after all.
America's greatest weapon is its speed, and for riders to pull back and milk the early pace simply surrenders their mounts' greatest advantages. Let a good horse stay in the thick of the race, and be certain that he or she will find a way to beat you. Run them off their feet and take your chances -- now that has long been the American racing battle cry.
The current Oak Tree at Santa Anita meeting has taken on a notorious reputation has being anti-speed. And while six-furlong sprint races have vastly underperformed the national dirt average (about 20 percent wire-to-wire winners locally vs. low-40s nationally), route races on the Pro-Ride actually have seen a higher percentage of wire-to-wire winners than many tracks with dirt surfaces (about 28 percent when you blend the 1 mile and 1-1/16 mile races). Dirt tracks like Aqueduct, Calder and Hawthorne currently are in the low to mid-20s for route wire thefts, while speed-blazened Meadowlands currently sees about 32 percent route wins on the front end. In other words, Oak Tree is less out-of-whack than you probably have heard.
Certainly the results of last year's Breeders' Cup will send many in the jockeys' room into a pace tailspin. Of the eight main-track races, it's true that six of them were won by horses who closed from 7-1/2 lengths or more behind the early pacesetter. Only Midshipman (Juvenile) raced on or near the lead and got his picture taken. But legitimate speed horses like Midshipman and Fatal Bullet (Sprint runner-up) ran their races. They were the only two early pacesetters on either BC championship day bet to 5-to-1 or less odds, and they ran first and second in their respective races. And it's tricky logic to base hard-fact trends on eight races total spread over two different days. Still, you know it's in the mind of many handicappers and jockeys alike.
The most incredible stat to come out of the 2009 Breeders' Cup is this: Only two American jockeys won a race in the eight main-track offerings, Garrett Gomez and Mike Smith. Gomez rang the bell four times and Smith twice. The other races were won by Ireland's Patrick Smullen in a 1-1/2 miles Marathon that defied anything American, and Italian Frankie Dettori's Classic score on Raven's Pass at 1-1/4 miles. For those making quick-pattern judgments, see anything there? The two longest races produced two European winners with European riders. The Euros were shut out of the six shortest BC races on Pro-Ride. I'm not willing to call that hard news yet, but you see my point.
On a track that certainly appears trickier to navigate than traditional dirt, the emphasis on a quality rider was stark last year. Gomez and Smith are among the best big-race riders in the game, and no doubt they piloted some awfully noble steeds, let us not forget.
The other American riders need to take Gomez's lead and not be so passive. Not only did Gomez win four times, but he put his horses into the race early in several of his main-track defeats (Juvenile Fillies, Ladies' Classic, Marathon and Classic). In short, he rode his horses the way they do their best running and let their talents stack up with the worldly challengers.
John Velazquez will be a very interesting "read" in this year's Breeders' Cup as he pilots several divisional contenders with some early foot on both surfaces. I've noticed Johnny V. to be far more aggressive in recent big races when he has the chance, and expect him to be a guy not afraid of the pace voodoo this weekend. Other riders who will be in the speed spotlight include Elvis Trujillo (Presious Passion, Turf), Bobby Landry (Careless Jewel, Ladies Classic), Edgar Prado (D'Funnybone, Juvenile), Rajiv Maragh (Seventh Street, Filly & Mare Sprint), Victor Espinoza (Zensational, Sprint), Kent Desormeaux (Dynaforce, Filly & Mare Turf), Richard Migliore (Regal Ransom, Classic), and the aforementioned Gomez (Cowboy Cal, Mile).
Regardless of surface, early speed is a dangerous asset when it is lonesome. Several of the grass races have heist potential if their riders don't give away their tactical edge and slow things down. Keep the pedal to the metal and see if the Europeans like chasing a half-mile in :46-and-change. Don't invite them to the party at the top of the stretch, or you're not going to like the results.
Jockeys should matter big-time at this year's Breeders' Cup. And while everyone else clamors to find which European to bet, I'll be starting my handicapping with which horse Garrett Gomez is riding. Until someone else shows me they have a championship-level grasp of riding those surfaces on the grandest stage, at least I go into my evaluations knowing Go-Go will have his mount in the right spot to show if they are good enough to get the job done. That's all you can ask of a jockey.
Jeremy Plonk has been an ESPN.com contributor since 2000 and is the managing partner of the handicapping website Horseplayerpro.com. You can E-mail Jeremy about this topic or anything racing-related at Jeremy@Horseplayerpro.com.
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