Khozan Stacks Up Well Historically, But Can He Buck Historic Apollo Curse?

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TwinSpires Staff

February 23rd, 2015

“I’d rather have a lot of talent and a little experience, than a lot of experience and a little talent”

-John Wooden

Khozan is a fascinating horse who has demonstrated exceptional talent every time he’s had the opportunity.

His first impressive display came at the Fasig-Tipton March 2-year-old sale, a sale that is generally considered the premier 2-year-old sale in the world.

Khozan drilled a furlong in 9.80 seconds. No horse at the sale worked faster. What’s more, his drill also got the sales highest rating from Data Track International, a service that measures stride length, bio-mechanical measurements, and motion analysis.

Perhaps the most impressive thing about Khozan’s sales workout is that his pedigree is far more route oriented than sprint oriented. Khozan is a half sibling to 3-time Eclipse award winner Royal Delta. She was a perfect 3-for-3 at ten furlongs on dirt. That includes a 5 ½-length win, while paying $13.00, in the 2011 Alabama, and a 10 ¾-length win in the 2013 Delaware Handicap while giving the runner-up 11 pounds. Both of those races were Grade 1 stakes. Khozan is also a half brother to Grade 1 winning turf router Crown Queen.

You generally don’t see horses with classy stamina pedigrees on the female side, totally light it up in their 1-furlong sales drill.

Khozan’s first racing opportunity came when he made his debut going 7 furlongs at Gulfstream Park on January 24th. Bet down from a 7-to-2 Morning Line, he drew off to win by almost 4 lengths in relatively dazzling time of 1:23.63

The performance earned Khozan a 103 Speed Rating and a 103 Beyer Speed Figure. What’s more, his final time was 0.76 seconds faster than the winning time of the Grade 3 Hutcheson stakes, which was the very next race on the card, and the Hutcheson even got an additional 10ft of run-up time.

Anytime something astounding like the final time of Khozan’s maiden race occurs, a handicapper must answer two questions. Were the races timed properly? Is there any reason to suspect that the track surface might have changed speed and slowed down in a half hour time?

Clearly, the races were timed properly. And clearly, there was no evidence to even suspect that the track might have changed speed. Indeed, Gorgeous Bird was hyped up to a revolting level for winning an entry level allowance race one hour earlier, by seven lengths, in the final time of 1:39.02.

Because Khozan’s maiden race was sandwiched in between the much slower Gorgeous Bird race and the Hutcheson, any such talk of the track speeding way up for Khozan’s race, and slowing way back down 30 minutes later, would border on pure lunacy.

The 103 numbers for Khozan was a stunning figure for a debuter at 7 furlongs or more. Generally speaking, most horses debut at six furlongs or shorter, especially horses who appear to be fast and precocious. It’s also generally more challenging for a horse to debut at that distance.

What’s more, when horses win their debut with big figures, they often tend to do it in races where they control an early pace against a smaller field. That was not the case in Khozan’s debut, he broke from post position #14 and stalked the pace four wide, before pulling away in the stretch. That was not a candy trip, controlling a soft pace in a small field, and he certainly wasn’t bias aided.

Indeed, not only was the final time and individual performance absent of any smoke and mirrors, but the speed figure was mind-blowing in the realm of early 3-year-olds debuting at that distance.

Because Khozan’s debut happened on the 24th day of his 3-year-old season, I ran a query for the top five Beyers ever published in the first 50 days of a 3-year-old season, at a distance of seven furlongs and up. Here’s the results:

There are two stunning things about that chart. First and foremost, three of those five horses were monsters. Pulpit was the Morning-Line favorite for the 1997 Kentucky Derby. He’s also the sire of top stallion Tapit. Curlin is a two-time Horse of the Year (and top sire). Rock Hard Ten finished his career with four outstanding wins in a row, including a victory over Lava Man in the Malibu and a win over eventual Horse of the Year Saint Liam in the Santa Anita Handicap.

The other stunning thing about that chart is that Wisecracker, who finished second to Khozan, made the top five outright as well.

It’s impressive company to be associated with.

However, anyone who has studied the history of Beyer figures knows that top-class horses generally ran much faster figures in Pulpit’s day compared to now.

Pulpit’s 107 debut figure was huge, but in his crop, the fourth place finisher of the Preakness, Touch Gold, ran a 116 while missing the Preakness trifecta. Simply put, a 107 Beyer in the late 90’s was more common than a 103 today.

In fact, in 1997, there were 48 different instances where a three-year-old ran a Beyer Figure of 110 or higher. Last year, there were just 11 different instances where a three-year-old ran a Beyer of 110 or higher. Keep in mind, three-year-olds swept the top six spots in last years Breeders’ Cup Classic, so by no means was last year’s crop of 3-year-olds subpar.

The one clear knock that I can make against Khozan in relation to the other horses on that chart, is the fact that he was more heavily trained than those other four horses, prior to his debut.

Khozan is the only horse of the five who participated in a two-year-old sale, where horses are pushed hard to prepare for their all-important one-furlong and two-furlong drills. And prior to his racing debut, Khozan had 16 published workouts, five of which beyond a half mile.

By comparison, before their debut, Pulpit had just eight published workouts, three of which beyond a half mile. Curlin had ten workouts, only one beyond a half mile. Rock Hard Ten had just five total published workouts. Wisecracker had nine workouts before his debut, none of them beyond a half mile.

In plain English, Khozan was far more seasoned and better prepared before his debut than any of the other four on here, thus, he might not have as much room for improvement, in theory.

In my opinion, Wisecracker is a very fascinating horse. His dam is by Touch Gold out of an A. P. Indy mare. Those are both Belmont Stakes winners, who aren’t exactly known for getting debut sprinters. Kiaran McLaughlin is also not a great Debut trainer, especially with horses that he debuts at longer distances.

Since 2012, McLaughlin is just 61-3-4-4 (4.9% wins) $0.64 ROI with horses debuting at seven furlongs or further. With second time starters, the win percentage spikes up to 24% and the ROI leaps to $1.94.

By comparison, over the same time span, Pletcher is 43-for-200 (21.5% wins) $2.13 ROI with horses debuting at seven furlongs or further. With second time starters, his win percentage goes up sharply to 33% but the ROI regresses to just $1.79

Any way you slice it with stats and facts, Wisecracker is supposed to have more upside of the two, going forward. As a sidenote, I spoke privately to a well-known clocker and bloodstock agent who does not share my enthusiasm for the future racing career of Wisecracker. He told me “his left knee is incredibly offset. That’s a horse that can hurt himself regularly.”

Getting back to Khozan, he made his second career start going a mile at Gulfstream Park yesterday in an entry level allowance race.

The race was a productive experience for him. He was bumped from both sides at the start. He was quickly taken back behind horses, perhaps in an effort to get him used to having dirt kicked back in his face. After taking some dirt, Javier Castellano made a pre-mature inside move with him to challenge for the lead, before drawing off through the stretch to win by almost 13 lengths, while under a hand ride.

The competition was badly overmatched, but it wasn’t exactly lousy for the entry level allowance class level. The second place finisher Big Family was Graded Stakes placed, when finishing third in the Hutcheson in his prior start.

There are some who are critical of Khozan’s slow final time of 1:38.07 and his final quarter of just 26.50. However, the main track was extremely slow at Gulfstream yesterday. Indeed, yesterday’s second race at Gulfstream was run in 1:42.02 and the final quarter of that race was in 29.07 seconds. Trotters on the 5/8ths mile track at Pompano Park generally come-home in time similar to that.

Khozan’s famous sister Royal Delta was a very temperamental horse. She raced very rank in her second start after getting hit in the face with the dirt, and finished 9th beaten almost 15 lengths in the Suncoast Stakes at Tampa. Royal Delta missed no training after that Tampa debacle, and came right back and won nicely at Keeneland a month later.

From a speed figure standpoint, the race was not nearly as impressive as his debut. Khozan earned a 101 Speed Rating but just a 90 Beyer. Interestingly, every single horse in the race regressed off their last race from a Beyer standpoint.

You’re already starting to see Khozan generating polarizing opinions from racing fans. Personally, I have appreciation for this horse based on what I’ve seen him do so far. He’s not some phony horse who got a soft trip or rode a bias. He’s not some horse who got undeserving praise for his debut. In fact, I still can’t figure out how Gorgeous Bird got virtually identical acclaim for his performance on the same January 24th card.

In regard to Khozan’s prospects for the Kentucky Derby, I understand the criticism. Mainly, he has no two-year-old racing experience. Bayern won the Haskell and Breeders’ Cup Classic last year, without any two-year-old experience. VE Day won last year’s Travers despite never having raced as a juvenile.

Summer Bird won the Belmont Stakes just 97 days after he debuted in a six-furlong race on March 1st. He actually completed a Belmont Stakes exacta with Dunkirk consisting of two horses with no 2-year-old experience. And the Preakness winners in 2006-2007 (Bernardini and Curlin) were both unraced two-year-olds who went on to win Eclipse Awards as champion three-year-old males.

Perhaps the more unsettling thing for me, regarding the Derby prospects of Khozan, is the fact that Todd Pletcher has dazzling trainer stats at Gulfstream Park, but not so at Churchill Downs.

Throughout Pletcher’s training career, his record is just 60-1-4-7 (1.7% wins) in all Churchill Downs races beyond the distance of nine furlongs. The lone winner was 2010 Kentucky Derby hero Super Saver, and he never started at Pletcher’s playground, Gulfstream Park.

There are valid reasons to not like Khozan as a Kentucky Derby prospect, but you don’t need to be a Wizard from Westwood to see that he has elite talent. Ever since his maiden race, he’s clearly been at least a top 10 talent in this crop, and his performance yesterday did nothing to diminish that in my eyes.