Handicapping Insights: Racetracks, not horses, often set the records

Profile Picture: Dick Powell

July 30th, 2019

There's an old racetrack saying about how "horses do not set track records; racetracks set track records." Back in 1973, three track records were set on the Belmont Park main track on opening day, May 19. The track back then had very little cushion on it and the fact that three records were set on one day showed how hard it was. A few weeks later, Secretariat set a dirt world record going 1 1/2 miles in 2:24 flat. It will never be broken.

Last Thursday, the Saratoga area was hit with a sudden thunderstorm. It came as a big surprise except to my friend sitting in front of me who got a weather alert on his phone a full 20 minutes before it hit. The fourth race was run at 1 3/8 miles on the inner turf course, and when the horses went around the far turn the second time, the rain was so heavy you could not see the field.

The problem is that for some unknown reason the main track was not sealed before the fourth race, and by the time it was over and the horses were unsaddled, it was too late. The tractors hurried out onto the main track, going the opposite way, and went around trying to seal the now very wet dirt. It was announced before the fifth race that the rest of the three turf races still to be run were now off the turf.

While the tractors kept going around, the horses for the fifth race were kept in the paddock and then the entire card's seven races were cancelled. On Friday, the track stayed muddy all day as it stayed extremely wet, and even on Saturday the riders were coming back covered with mud.

Under these circumstances, it is no surprise that track records would go down. In the Alfred Vanderbilt (G1) going six furlongs, last year's winner IMPERIAL HINT, sat off the hot pace in an exact replica of last year's win and loomed boldly on the far turn. Under Javier Castellano, he took the lead three wide turning for home and pulled away to an easy win. The final time was 1:07.92, a new track record for a distance on the main track that was probably run thousands of times over the years.

Sunday, the fast times continued when the Amsterdam (G2) for three-year-olds was run going 6 1/2 furlongs. SHANCEALOT gunned to the front from post 12 and immediately seized the lead. The first quarter was run in :21.79, which is not that unusual since there is a long run up to the timing pole going that distance down the Saratoga backstretch. He ran his next quarter mile in :22.15 and with a full head of steam, hit the six-furlong mark in 1:07.63 – faster than Imperial Hint did the day before. Shancealot's final time of 1:14.01 just missed the track record, and if he had had any company in the stretch would have broken it.

Both horses were brilliant and even with the rock-hard main track I can't take anything away from them. But the final times were dramatically affected by all the rain that resulted in a sealed main track. If they come back on similar surfaces, I would expect them to run a similar race. But if the dirt was deep and cuppy, I would bet against them.

Not every three-year-old goes on to develop into a better four-year-old. Five-year-olds, which are pretty rare in these parts, are even better. Battled hardened and physically mature, they can usually at their best. ENABLE showed this year that she is better than ever at the age of five. The winner of the past two Prix de l'Arc de Triomphes (G1), she gallantly won the Breeders' Cup Turf (G1) to finish up last year then returned to the races with a game win over Magical in the Eclipse (G1) at Sandown to begin this season.

On Saturday, she faced a terrific field in the King George VI and Queen Elizabeth (G1) at Ascot. To add to the suspense, she drew outside and Frankie Dettori was never able to get over and save any ground. Running exposed on the outside throughout, he kept her in behind CRYSTAL OCEAN. When the pacemakers finished their job, the race was on and just like he did at Royal Ascot last month, Dettori moved early and tried to break the race open.

James Doyle was having none of it and he bellied down on Crystal Ocean to set up an epic battle that exceeded pre-race expectations. The two battled for the lead pulling away from horses like Epsom Derby (G1) winner Anthony Van Dyck. They fought it out to the wire and Enable prevailed by a neck in a race that nobody deserved to lose.

One thing that was apparent in the stretch was the jockey's cognizance of the whip rules. If they violated the rules, it would not have affected the outcome of the race but a lengthy suspension for the jockey. Frankie is riding better than ever and he has been wining these major races by seizing command early and then using every ounce of guile and talent to get his mount home.

There were a lot of big performances on the weekend but I was especially impressed by bob Baffert's IMMEDIATE IMPACT in the opener on Sunday at Del Mar. The half-sister to Arrogate broke well, pressed the pace three wide, and then took over turning for home. She showed she can rate and then pass horses. The final margin was almost seven lengths and if she can look this good going 5 1/2 furlongs, who knows how good she will be when stretched out in distance. The Del Mar Debutante (G1) should be next for her.

Imperial Hint (c) Adam Coglianese Photography