That figures: Can improving Country House win Preakness?

May 07, 2019 12:52pm
Regular readers here know highly I regarded Country House, making the argument for him as an upset candidate in the Risen Star Stakes (G2), a race in which he finished second off a maiden-breaking win.

Country House’s Gulfstream maiden victory looked great visually because he overcame a slow start and a wide trip, but it was also low on speed figures.

For the performance seen in the replay below, Country House only earned a 92 TimeformUS Speed Figure and 70 Beyer Speed Figure.

Speed figures cannot measure the kind of trip Country House overcame there. It fooled the oddsmaker at Fair Grounds, who made the colt 20-1.

Off at a more logical 6-1, Country House finished second in the Risen Star to War of Will in a promising effort. The one main concern came in the stretch when he lugged in, but it seemed Country House might step forward.

Next, Country House competed in the Louisiana Derby (G2) and made a bold move on the far turn before hanging and losing ground to By My Standards and Spinoff. He faded over six lengths behind after going wide.

Trainer Bill Mott decided to take one more shot though at earning Kentucky Derby qualifying points, and Country House wheeled back in the Arkansas Derby (G1) on the slop. Once again, he put himself in a good position on the far turn and never progressed. Omaha Beach and Improbable put on a show six lengths ahead.

Country House made the Top 19 after the last prep race, but he looked like a chronic hanger heading into the Kentucky Derby. He gave the impression of a horse who always make a big move and without any desire to win.

The results of the Derby did not dissuade me even as Maximum Security clearly ran the best race. Country House put himself in position once again and took dead aim. The pacesetter had more heart and held him off late.

There are also some encouraging points to make moving forward.  

Country House earned a 118 TimeformUS Speed Figure and 99 Beyer Figure for crossing the wire second. Both of those numbers are lifetime bests.

Along those same lines, Country House also recorded the highest early pace figures of his career, with TimeformUS giving him a 132 and 122. In six previous races, Country House never ran a pace figure higher than 116.

His early position also contradicted the “S 0” label BRIS gave him, as Country House settled only about four lengths behind Maximum Security.

Even trainer Bill Mott did not believe he would race that close to the leaders.

“We were surprised that he got into that position early,” Mott said.
“He was just cruising on the backside.”

Country House showed that he is capable of a more forward position, which separates him from a true plodder such as Master Fencer, who came from last to finish a fast-closing seventh. Master Fencer's deep closing style will always hurt him in North America, while Country House can adapt to the situation.

If Country House enters the Preakness Stakes, he will go into the race with competitive pace and speed figures. He handles the slop and also runs his race on a fast track. Simply, he is a Preakness win contender.

Yet, at the end of the day, he has only crossed the wire in front only once. Improved numbers cannot measure a lack of heart in the lane.

Country House can go in one of two directions from here.

He may follow in the footsteps of Ice Box, Golden Soul and Commanding Curve, the Derby runner-ups from 2010, 2013 and 2014 who disappointed backers after the first Saturday in May.

In contrast, Country House might also emulate Summer Bird, the grinding closer who came into the 2009 Kentucky Derby with only a maiden win and third in the Arkansas Derby (G2), the same placing Country House earned.

Summer Bird only managed a sixth in Mine That Bird’s Derby romp, but he went on to take the Belmont Stakes, Travers Stakes (G1) and Jockey Club Gold Cup, and also finished second in the Haskell Stakes (G1) to the legendary filly Rachel Alexandra. 

“I think the lightbulb came on," Mott said of Country House. "We’ve been waiting for that, because I don’t think he’s figured out how to ever give 100%. I think he gave 99 (on Saturday). It certainly looked like it was a big move forward, so to speak, from any of his previous races."

If he starts in the Preakness though, he will come into the race with seven starts under his belt and only one win that did not fall into his hooves by disqualification. For handicappers, that is a tough pill to swallow.

Perhaps some lightbulbs flicker slower than others, but I still put Country House in the category of Ice Box, Golden Soul and Commanding Curve. He needs to prove he can put himself into a good position and finish the job in the stretch run. Right now, he has only proven the first part of that.

Glancing through the probable Preakness starters in two weeks, he faces War of Will and Alwaysmining, two horses who want to win. The latter finished behind Country House in the Derby, but only after Maximum Security interfered. Code of Honor and Bourbon War are threats as well.

Whether it is War of Will, Alwaysmining or another horse, one of the contenders with more heart and determination than Country House figures to get it done at Pimlico, while the Derby winner stands to loom large and stall again.


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Meet Reinier Macatangay

My first time at the racetrack came as a 5-year-old kid at Santa Anita Park. For most of my younger life, that was the only track I attended other the occasional visit to Hollywood Park. 

Years later, after graduating California State University, Stanislaus with an English MA, I began writing for Lady and the Track. From late 2014-2016, my articles were seen on a weekly basis and covered handicapping, interviews with well-known racing personalities, fashion and more. 

The handicapping style I use concentrates on pace analysis. Some horses are compromised by the pace. Others are helped. Handicappers just starting out cannot easily see how pace affects the finish, so with this blog, I hope to help those unsure of how to apply pace into their handicapping and post-race analysis. 

On an unrelated note, I enjoy video games and attending anime or comic-book conventions. I am currently based in Kentucky, but spend a lot of time traveling between there and California.

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