Photo: Eclipse Sportswire
This weekend is the official end of summer. Here at TimeformUS we thought we'd stop and take a look at how North American racing stacks up so far this year, first by looking at the older male division, focusing (with one notable exception) on dirt and synthetic stakes racing, and using TimeformUS speed figures as the metric for comparing this year's crop to others.
The most striking thing about this group, so far, is the wide discrepancy between the top performers--including the phenomenal pair of six-year-old geldings, Game On Dude and Wise Dan--and the rest of the 2013 graded stakes winners.
On average, the winning TimeformUS speed figures in dirt and synthetic graded stakes have been sub-par this year, coming in at 113.67. Meanwhile, the top 10 performances have been quite robust, an average of 127.8. This 14+ point gap is the greatest since 2004, which saw a 15.2 point gap due to the presence of some dominant Bobby Frankel horses as well as no synthetic racing.
If Wise Dan's figures (all earned on turf) were added into the analysis, the top ten average would bump up to 128.4, bringing the year nearly even with 2004 for the biggest gap between the very top horses and the rest.
Both Game On Dude and Wise Dan brought stellar credentials into this season. The latter is the reigning Horse of the Year. The former was a clear-cut 6/5 betting favorite in last years Breeders' Cup Classic. And each has posted five for five records this year, while delivering some absolutely unbelievable performances.
Since the year 2000, only three horses have had back-to-back years in which they've captured five or more North American Graded Stakes wins each year. Those three horses are Zenyatta ('08-to'10), Wise Dan ('12-to-'13), and Game On Dude ('12-to-'13)
It's lovely to see Hall of Fame-caliber horses staying sound and winning Graded Stakes races, but Game On Dude and Wise Dan aren't just winning. They're usually doing it with devastating ease, sometimes running blistering speed figures while winning under wraps, and usually conceding significant weight to their rivals.
Game On Dude's 2013 campaign has been flabbergasting. He has sole possession of the highest TimeformUS speed figure this year, the 132 he was assigned for winning the Santa Anita Handicap by a record seven and three quarter lengths. In that race, he conceded ten pounds to second-place finisher Clubhouse Ride, a horse who was second in the $1 million Charles Town Classic and a clear-cut winner of the Grade 2 Californian Stakes in his next two starts after the Big Cap.
Game On Dude also has sole possession of this year's fastest TimeformUS speed figure over a synthetic surface: the 130 he earned when he won the Pacific Classic by a record margin of eight and a half lengths.
Game On Dude added the Hollywood Gold Cup under 127 pounds, conceding eleven pounds to second-place finisher Kettle Corn, who returned to win the Grade 2 San Diego Handicap over the more popular Baffert runner Paynter.
Reigning Horse of the Year Wise Dan certainly hasn't had as glamorous a campaign as Game On Dude. However, he dealt with similarly harsh weight concessions when he won the Firecracker and Fourstardave earlier this summer.
Wise Dan's signature performance came this past weekend in the Grade 1 Woodbine Mile. Jockey John Velazquez had placed Wise Dan under stout early restraint, and had him positioned in a textbook garden spot trip while a clear third behind a pair of dueling leaders. Wise Dan capitalized on the perfect trip and won the Woodbine Mile with disdainful ease while delivering an unbelievably stylish performance.
I can't remember the last time I've witnessed a horse win a Grade 1 turf race in North America with such extremely confident handling. Millkom in the 1995 Man O' War, maybe.
In a perfect world, two great horses in peak form like Wise Dan and Game On Dude would face off against each other. To make it as fair as possible, how about we put this hypothetical match-up at nine furlongs on Polytrack?
The last time Game On Dude raced on a synthetic track, he won the Pacific Classic by eight and a half lengths with a 130 TimeformUS speed figure. The last time Wise Dan ran on a synthetic track, he won the Ben Ali Stakes at Keeneland by ten and a half lengths with a 130 TimeformUS speed figure, while getting nine furlongs in a still-standing track record of 1:46.63
Obviously, such a race will happen only in video games or in the imagination of racing fans. This hypothetical race also would have been just as great a race on dirt. It simply was never meant to happen this year--and it won't.
While the older male dirt/synth division isn't loaded with depth, there are some hard-hitting types who contribute to those high averages at the top.
The extremely talented Cross Traffic adds quite a bit of spice to the equation. Last time out, Cross Traffic won the Whitney Handicap in just his fifth lifetime start and he did it with a dazzling 128 TimeformUS speed figure. Very few horses are ever able to achieve that type of success, let alone in so few starts. The older male division is also full of horses who can be world beaters on their day. Last year's Breeders' Cup Classic winner, Fort Larned, is a good example. He's made a loose lead only twice this year, and both times he dazzled. Unfortunately, one of those two performances occurred after he dumped his jockey. The other was a super impressive performance in the Grade 1 Stephen Foster Handicap, which earned a blistering 129 TimeformUS speed figure. The NYRA-loving Flat Out is another that helps provide true depth to this division. He's quietly made over $3 million in his career and was recently second, beaten only a head, in the Woodward, losing to Alpha, who capitalized on a loose early lead and a slow pace. Flat Out has run some monster TimeformUS speed figures in the past, and he has won back to back Jockey Club Gold Cups.
As a student of pace figures, speed figures, and especially trip handicapping, one thing I do ignore is the notion that Wise Dan isn't as effective on dirt based on his second-place result in the 2012 Stephen Foster Handicap. I've already touched on that subject. The bottom line is that we have a very memorable collection of top older males out there who are all capable of outstanding performances on dirt. In Wise Dan's case, unlike most US-based horses, he also handles the turf extremely well.
Generally, our dirt racing is, by a significant margin, the best in the entire world. We proved it year after year in Dubai, before the switch to a synthetic surface there. However, American-based turf horses are a combined 0-for-47 in the three major grass races, The Dubai Duty Free, The Dubai Sheema Classic, and the Al Quoz Sprint. We have sent a lot of our best to Dubai, only to see them get smoked with regularity by horses based in South Africa, Asia, and, of course, Europe.