2014 Kentucky Derby: Biggest Lessons Learned at Churchill Downs

Brendan O'Meara@@BrendanOMearaFeatured ColumnistMay 4, 2014

2014 Kentucky Derby: Biggest Lessons Learned at Churchill Downs

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    California Chrome was sensational while winning the Derby.
    California Chrome was sensational while winning the Derby.Charlie Riedel/Associated Press

    California Chrome put on a clinic Saturday in the Kentucky Derby, winning by 1 3/4 lengths. He did it effortlessly. Victor Espinoza rode him beautifully. If people had their doubts about CC, he erased them. 

    As the Derbies add up, each one provides a chance for examination. When dissected, you can pick through and find out what happened and how you can learn from it. This year's was no different.

    There were some takeaways worth exploring that help expose some truths about the Derby and truths about some of the participants. 

    It's time for class.

Numbers Are No Guarantee

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    Trainer Todd Pletcher saddled 21 percent of the field in the Kentucky Derby.
    Trainer Todd Pletcher saddled 21 percent of the field in the Kentucky Derby.Garry Jones/Associated Press

    Todd Pletcher—trainer to Danza, Vinceremos, We Miss Artie and Intense Holiday—saddled 21 percent of the field for the Kentucky Derby and didn't win. Mike Maker saddled three horses (Vicar's in Trouble, Harry's Holiday and General a Rod) and didn't win.

    Talent wins, not numbers. 

    It is impressive that trainers such as Pletcher and Maker can condition and campaign multiple horses and get them to Churchill Downs. The horses, for that matter, need to be commended for performing as well as they did to reach this point. 

    Still, Pletcher (who is now 1-of-40 in the Derby) and Maker, with all their numbers, walk away from Louisville without roses, while Art Sherman, trainer to California Chrome, basks in the spotlight with the biggest horse he ever trained: The one horse he entered.

The Race Was Won in the 1st Quarter-Mile

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    The opening quarter-mile was a war. Horses got slammed all over. It was a melee, but the ones who finished strongest got into their rhythm early. They still had a long way to go, but at least they found their comfort zone before they burned too much fuel.

    California Chrome relaxed just off the leaders. Commanding Curve angled in nicely and drafted way back in the field. Danza got slammed by Vinceremos but still managed to find his stride. Wicked Strong fell out of Post 20 and faced zero traffic problems.

    For a 10-furlong race, it's amazing that the most important furlongs are the first two and not the following eight. Handicapping the race's opening quarter is every bit as important as the final quarter.

Polytrack Horses Don't Measure Up

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    Dance With Fate ran fine but fell short nonetheless.
    Dance With Fate ran fine but fell short nonetheless.Andy Lyons/Getty Images

    Honestly, the horses that raced best on Polytrack—Dance With Fate, Harry's Holiday, We Miss Artie, Medal Count—didn't do all that bad. Dance With Fate finished sixth, Medal Count finished eighth, We Miss Artie finished 10th and Harry's Holiday finished 16th.

    Dance With Fate got within 6 1/4 lengths of California Chrome, so that's something, but the Derby once again exposed horses that raced on Polytrack. Polytrack has never truly been in favor, just a tolerated surface. In most cases—and especially this year—ignoring the Polytrack horses was a good move.

    That said, there were many horses that trained and raced primarily on dirt, and those horses ran terribly. General a Rod, Vicar's in Trouble and Intense Holiday were big disappointments. Mediocrity comes in many forms.

    Keeneland will be thanking itself for switching their racing surface back to dirt, making its Blue Grass Stakes a reputable prep once again.

Trust the Beyer Speed Figures

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    Victor Espinoza aboard California Chrome
    Victor Espinoza aboard California ChromeKevin C. Cox/Getty Images

    Fast horses ran fast Saturday—simple.

    Looking at the past performances, as provided by Daily Racing Form (account needed/purchase required), three of the top four finishers had the fastest Beyer Speed Figures.

    California Chrome's Santa Anita Derby was a 107. Danza's Arkansas Derby was a 102. Wicked Strong's Wood Memorial was a 104. And they all ran huge races in the Derby.

    It proved that speed figures have merit. It tells you who's fast. And with so much information to drown in, sometimes it's just as simple as speed. In the end, it's who runs the fastest—end of story.

Even Trainers Get It Wrong

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    California Chrome made a believer out of Dale Romans.
    California Chrome made a believer out of Dale Romans.Rob Carr/Getty Images

    Dale Romans, trainer to Medal Count, is as forthcoming a trainer as there is in horse racing. After the Derby, he told Churchill Downs that he didn't think much of California Chrome. He does now. Romans said afterward, per KentuckyDerby.com's Darren Rogers:

    I do want to say one thing on the record. I didn't think that California Chrome had any chance going into this race and I was very, very wrong. Whether the crop's a good crop or not, that's a special horse. I was wrong. I was a very big skeptic; I threw him out of all my tickets in every spot. I didn't think he fit the profile to win the Derby. I'm very impressed the way he came into it, the way he looked, the way he was prepared and the way he ran. Now he has a new fan.

    Even the game's most educated and revered horsemen get it wrong. The Derby, even for them, is a mystery. So going forward, it's best to do your homework and go with your gut. If they can get it wrong, there's hope for us all.

Dallas Stewart Is Dangerous

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    Dallas Stewart, left, hoses down his horse.
    Dallas Stewart, left, hoses down his horse.Andy Lyons/Getty Images

    A year ago, Dallas Stewart trained a horse named Golden Soul. That horse, as a major long shot, closed to finish second in the Derby behind Orb.

    This year, with the defection of Ring Weekend, Stewart's Commanding Curve drew into the field as a late addition. He got a great trip and closed fast to take second behind California Chrome. The lesson is beware of Stewart trainees. They can sneak up on the field.

    Stewart's home base is Churchill Downs, so his horses do the majority of their training over the surface. That familiarity bodes well for the horses. If they're comfortable over the Churchill dirt in training, that'll carry over to the afternoons. We saw that with Commanding Curve, a horse who appears to love the distance and will relish it more going forward.