In Defense of Lombo's Robert B. Lewis Victory

Profile Picture: J. Keeler Johnson

February 5th, 2018

Perhaps the biggest storyline to come out of California so far this year is that Santa Anita Park—formerly renowned as one of the fastest racetracks in the country—has undergone a significant transformation to become a very slow and tiring track.

Seemingly gone are the days of 1:33 miles and 1:07 six-furlong sprints, making it challenging to analyze the performances of Santa Anita’s Kentucky Derby contenders. What constitutes a strong effort now that Santa Anita is playing as slow (or even slower, depending on the day) as Aqueduct?

That’s a key question to consider when analyzing the results of the February 3rd $150,000 Robert B. Lewis Stakes (gr. III), a Road to the Kentucky Derby prep race. The winner in decisive fashion was Lombo, a son of Graydar trained by Michael Pender. Lombo was stretching out in distance off a sharp sprint victory two weeks prior at Santa Anita and utilized his speed to take the lead, set fractions of :23.40, :47.26, and 1:12.20, and maintain a commanding advantage down the homestretch to win by two lengths.

Here’s where things get tricky: Lombo was slowing down late, and not just a little. He ran the fourth quarter-mile in :26.14 and the final sixteenth in :07.07, very slow fractions that translated to a final time of just 1:45.41 for 8.5 furlongs. That time produced modest speed figures as well—an 88 BRIS and an 86 Beyer, significantly lower than the figures posted by the other major Derby prep race winners over the weekend.

At first glance, a time like this would suggest that Lombo has a long way to go to before being viewed as a serious Kentucky Derby contender. However, it’s worth noting that the talented five-year-old Accelerate required a full 1:50.58 seconds to win the nine-furlong San Pasqual Stakes (gr. II) later on the card, evidence of how slow the track was playing. While speed figures can account for the effect that a slow track has on final times, what’s trickier to quantify is the effect that a slow track has on individual horses. Lombo was competing in a route race for the first time and running back on short rest; it wasn’t a surprise to see him get leg-weary late. The question is, would he have gotten quite so leg-weary over a very fast track, or did the tiring track at Santa Anita exaggerate his slowdown in the homestretch?

My main point is that it’s still early on the Derby trail and we as handicappers are still adapting to a track at Santa Anita that is quite different than what we’ve historically been accustomed to. It might be premature to write off Lombo on the basis of a slow time, especially considering that he did win convincingly.