ESPN Horse Racing

The Derby had a need for speed
By Bill Finley
Special to

Let's get one thing straight: I am taking nothing away from Smarty Jones. Good horse. Great story. Big performance in the Kentucky Derby. Smarty Jones for President. It's just that the Kentucky Derby was not a truly run race.

A torrential (and I mean torrential) downpour that started about 90 minutes before the race turned the Churchill Downs racing surface in a gooey quagmire. More often than not, when trainers tell you their horses didn't handle the track it's nothing more than a tired old excuse, a lame copout when they can't come up with anything better to say. But that wasn't the case Derby Day. So many good horses ran so poorly that the only plausible explanation is that the majority of them couldn't handle what was obviously a tricky, quirky track that doomed several horses to defeat.

Here's what some of the losing trainers and jockeys had to say:

Michael Dickinson (Tapit): (Jockey) Ramon (Dominguez) said he didn't handle the track…The track was a little sticky for us. He never got running."

Beau Greely (Borrego): It looked like the two that were up front stayed there. That's one of the things when you have a track like this. You don't really know what will happen."

Jeff Mullins (Castledale): "He struggled with the track quite a bit."

John Kimmel (Friends Lake): "He broke running, but really had a hard time with the footing."

Shane Sellers (The Cliff's Edge): "He just didn't handle the track at all, not one bit."

Noberto Arroyo Jr. (Song of the Sword): "He didn't handle the track. He was getting stuck on the ground."

Alex Solis (Action This Day): "He started slipping and sliding. He wasn't handling it at all."

John Velazquez (Pollard's Vision): "We moved up on the backstretch, but that was it. He didn't like the track at all."

They can't all be wrong. One look at the Beyer figures for the race shows that several of the horses ran some of the worst races of their careers. Take a look at the some of these Derby Beyers as compared to pre-Derby Beyers.

Borrego (Kentucky Derby-83; Arkansas Derby 105)
Castledale (Kentucky Derby-70; Santa Anita Derby 103)
Friends Lake (Kentucky Derby-54; Florida Derby 92)
Master David (Kentucky Derby 80-Wood Memorial 97)
Minister Eric (Kentucky Derby 53-Keeneland allowance 100)
Pollard's Vision (Kentucky Derby 48; Illinois Derby 107)
Pro Prado (Kentucky Derby 78; Arkansas Derby 102)
Song of the Sword (Kentucky Derby 82; Lexington 97)
Tapit (Kentucky Derby 84; Wood Memorial 98)
The Cliff's Edge (Kentucky Derby 89; Blue Grass 111)

Horses don't go off form by 20 or 30, even 50 Beyer points without a reason. At least half the field didn't come anywhere close to running their race. Smarty Jones did. He ran a 107 Beyer, essentially the same figure he got for winning the Arkansas Derby and the Rebel. It's a good number, but hardly out of this world. Read the Footnotes, The Cliff's Edge and Lion Heart have run faster this year. Pollard's Vision got the same 107 for winning the Illinois Derby.

The condition of the track no doubt also played a role in the way the race was run. Smarty Jones and Lion Heart essentially ran one-two around the track, only changing positions near the top of the stretch. The only horse in the field that made up any ground was Imperialism, who closed from 17th to finish third. That's the sort of thing that happens all the time in races run in the slop. It's just that this one happened to be in the Kentucky Derby.

Does that mean Smarty Jones wouldn't have won on a fast track? No. Does that mean his win was a fluke? No. Does it mean that he can't win the Preakness? Absolutely not.

It does mean that his Kentucky Derby victory came under some very unusual circumstances and that Smarty Jones has a little something more to prove.