No matter the distance, the start is key

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TwinSpires Staff

May 22nd, 2018


So Bob Baffert, winner of seven Preakness Stakes, beat D. Wayne Lukas, winner of six Preakness Stakes, in last Saturday’s Preakness Stakes at Pimlico over a sloppy (sealed) track. Baffert has now tied Lukas for the most Triple Crown race wins at 14.

That means 28 classic races, run at 1 3/16 miles, 1 ¼ miles and 1 ½ miles, have been dominated by trainers that cut their teeth in the quarter horse world. So what do races going 440 yards have in common with races going a classic distance?

Getting out of the gate! No matter the distance of the race.  

Regardless of the distance, breaking cleanly from the starting gate can be the difference between winning and losing; between a good trip and a bad trip; between dictating circumstances or being a victim of circumstances.  

It doesn’t mean you have to be on the lead. It means that you have to avoid breaking poorly and having to overcome traffic. Sometimes you get the trip; sometimes you don’t. Sometimes you go to the front and get cooked in a fast pace; sometimes you don’t.

JUSTIFY was sent to the front from post 7 by Mike Smith on a track that was speed biased most of the day. He was under severe pressure from the inside from Jose Ortiz who had no choice but to send GOOD MAGIC from post 5 when QUIP and DIAMOND KING did not break well to his inside.  

The advantage was to JUSTIFY as he was able to relax off the rail but GOOD MAGIC was game as could be. Had either one broke a half-step slow, they would have been in big trouble. But there they were, blazing away in a match race through the fog of Pimlico.  

JUSTIFY turned out, again, to be the better horse. In spite of his massive size and long stride, Baffert had him prepared for the start and just like in the Derby, he broke like a quarter horse. From there, he can relax for Smith. If he can break on top, settle, get into cruising speed, and then have late energy, that is the formula for a great horse.  

But what if he broke poorly in the Derby? We wouldn’t be talking about the Triple Crown. In a 20-horse field, it would have been almost impossible to overcome. Breaking cleanly and quickly earned him the trip. Same with ALWAYS DREAMING the year before.

Chad Brown had GOOD MAGIC ready for a top effort and wasn’t worried about getting to the bottom since he had already declared the Belmont Stakes out of the picture. He left everything on the table and we will probably see him next in the Haskell Invitational (G1) at Monmouth Park.  

JUSTIFY used his quick start to best advantage and GOOD MAGIC was forced into a position he was not comfortable with. It’s like a basketball team that is used to walking the ball up court getting into a run-and-gun game.

But it all begins at the start. And Baffert and Lukas have that part covered. Go to Saratoga any morning and watch how much time Todd Pletcher and Linda Rice spend schooling their horses at the gate. They get familiar with it and learn not to be intimidated by it. Pletcher has even brought in specialists to help the schooling. To his owners, it’s money well worth spending. 

Pletcher was an assistant trainer to Wayne Lukas and Linda Rice’s father Clyde grew up with Lukas in Wisconsin. They all realized that even if a horse doesn’t have a ton of natural speed, they have to get away cleanly from the gate. No matter what the distance.