Breeders Cup Turf Strategy: Garrity warns Del Mar's short homestretch may hinder top European closers
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Breeders Cup Turf Strategy: Garrity warns Del Mar's short homestretch may hinder top European closers

The finish lines comes up quicker than at European tracks where runners expect a longer sprint to the wire.

We have picks at Del Mar today, in advance of Day 1 of the Breeders Cup tomorrow, but here we want to give a fairly basic lesson in turf handicapping, one that should be instructive for its own sake, but will be of particular importance, we think, for the grass races that comprise half of the fourteen Breeders Cup races on Friday and Saturday.

We should pause for a moment to describe how turf horses are generally trained to run: It is to relax early, letting other horses set the pace, and to kick into high gear late, going as fast as possible in the race’s later stages. This is the default training style in Europe, and there is good reason for teaching horses to run this way: It is how most turf races are won, on both sides of the Atlantic ocean. Turf horses who close in this manner -- we’ll call it the European style -- have been enormously successful in past Breeders Cups, including last year, when Euros dominated the grass races. Horses are trained to run this way because it works.

Now let us look at the two races on the turf at Del Mar yesterday, the 2nd and the 6th. Both were at a mile, they were for 2- and 3-year-old fillies, respectively, and both were first-level allowances, for horses who have not won a race other than a maiden race or a claiming race -- generally speaking, these races are filed with horses who have beaten maidens, but have yet to beat winners.

The favorites in both races were shippers from the East Coast: in the 2nd, 5-Sparkle Blue was 8/5 for trainer Graham Motion off a fourth-place finish in a stakes race at Colonial Downs; in the 6th, the even-money chalk was 3-Nazuna, who finished off the board in two Belmont Park turf stakes races in her prior starts. The replays of the races are here:

These races are a good illustration of the potential pitfalls the Del Mar turf course presents to deep closers. At seven furlongs in circumference, the stretch can be simply too short to make up enough ground to get to the front. If the rider of a good horse waits until the top of the stretch to make a move, it could very well be too late -- as is shown by Nazuna’s trip in Race 6: she ran a European-style race, running well back early, then sprinting very strongly down the home stretch, but she ran out of real estate, finishing second to Moraz, who led all the way around the racetrack.

For a contrast, look at Race 3. Jose Ortiz, who rode Sparkle Blue, was also content to be well back early, but he started to encourage her down the backstretch, at about the half-mile pole, which allowed horse and jockey to get within striking distance of the leaders going into the far turn, and to reach the front at the top of the stretch. From there, it was just a question of whether she had the finishing kick to stay in front, and the answer on this day, for Sparkle Blue, was yes.

We go into this in this level of detail for a couple of reasons. One is to point out the preferred running style on the Del Mar turf course: it is the kind of trip that Ortiz worked out for Sparkle Blue. This does not mean that every turf race will be won this way, only that this is the most effective kind of trip, and for a horse to win another way -- leading wire to wire, for example, or by making a furious late rally -- is going to require an extraordinary effort.

But the more important point is that the propensity of the Del Mar turf course to play against one-run deep closers is going to affect some European horses, and their jockeys, and it will affect them enough, we think, that at least once, the horse who was clearly the best will not win. We think there will be at least one Breeders Cup turf race where a talented horse, either because of traffic trouble or because a jockey waited too long, is going to start his late run too late, at the top of the stretch, and is going to end up finishing second or third as a result. At so many other tracks, including virtually all in Europe, what works in turf races is simple: get good position on a horse early, and let him go when the field comes out of the far turn and into the home stretch. At Del Mar, this method usually leads to heartbreak, for the very simple reason that the stretch is too short.

This is something important to keep in mind when handicapping the Breeders Cup. Hopefully it will help make sense of races that can seem inscrutable, and hopefully it will lead to greater success at the betting windows.

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