branching out

i created this corner of the internet in January of 2014 to keep myself plugged into horse racing once the fall meet at Hawthorne ended, during the seven and a half weeks before the next season started. yes, even in 2014 racing started back up in February in Chicago. i created this to be about horse racing, and only horse racing.

when i created it, i knew very little about the sport. i was teaching myself how to read the program, and still in the process of making sense of all those little numbers squenched into the smallest space possible. i wrote my way through my confusion, into a new obsession.

there is little inevitable in my life, but one of those constants is my inability to build lasting walls to separate the aspects of my life. the personal becomes the professional, or the other way around. interests overlap, mingle, make arbitrary boundaries obsolete. just as physical systems tend toward entropy, so it goes with the places my mind decides to bounce. disorder reigns sooner or later.

almost nine years after i carved out this corner of the internet, this becomes no exception.

i hated that i wasn’t writing here much anymore, and i finally figured out why, or at least why for now. i had begun to see this as a mostly-impersonal place for mostly-impersonal horse racing ideas, and nothing more.

my horse racing life is nothing i could have ever imagined in January of 2014. back then, i needed a dedicated place to make sense of the sport. as i kept coming to the track and kept writing about horse racing, i needed a place that was only for that.

i’ve been working in horse racing for five and a half years now. most of the writing i do about horse racing comes in the scope of my jobs. horse racing used to be the thing i do in my spare time. now, i still watch racing and go through some pedigree rabbit holes in my spare time, but writing about the sport isn’t what i spend all of my spare time the way it was when my working hours were not all about horse racing. i’ve always been a person who liked some variety, and writing about horse racing professionally has, in a sense, opened up time and mental space to do other things as well.

and yet, i’d like a place to write about…things. perhaps, about horse racing. perhaps, about other things that i want to share with people instead of squirreling away in a journal, destined to gather dust until whoever goes through my stuff after i die either reads it or sets it on fire. definitely, in a longer and less ethereal form than Facebook or my increasingly precarious internet home, Twitter. and i’ve caught myself deliberately choosing to do other things than write at all. part of it has been burnout. part of it has been that there wasn’t a place i was happy to do it.

absurd, since this was right here all along.

i thought on and off of starting somewhere else, but why do that? i love what i’ve written here over the years. it’s writing that taught me a lot, and in many cases, writing i’m still elated to share. if i can evolve over the years, why can’t my home on the internet?

this is just to say…no, nothing about plums in an icebox, though that remains one of my favourite poems-turned-internet-memes. no, this is just to say that this site belongs to me, and i can broaden its purpose if that makes me happy. right now, i think it does.

putting the Saudi Cup in context

(This was originally published February 11, 2020 at With that site offline, that link points to the copy on i’m republishing it here both in case anything happens to this record on, and because i’d prefer it to also be readable without referring to my deadname.)


Last week, horse racing buzzed over the probables for the richest Thoroughbred race in history: the Saudi Cup, scheduled for February 29, 2020 at King Abdulaziz Racetrack in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia.

Far fewer people in horse racing were talking about another piece of news related to the country: a report Amnesty International released on February 6 about Saudi Arabia’s Specialized Criminal Court (SCC), an institution at the heart of its continued repression of dissidents and activists.  It was originally set up in 2008 as a court to try people accused of terrorism-related crimes, but starting in 2011 it began to hear cases in which the defendants were accused of criticizing the government, dissenting against its policies, or spreading religious faith not strictly in line with the government’s.

Though Amnesty International’s report about the human rights concerns in Saudi Arabia is the most recent one, it is far from the only one.  Similar concerns have also been raised by the American Bar Association’s Center for Human Rights, Human Rights Watch, and Ben Emmerson, serving in his capacity as the United Nations Special Rapporteur on the promotion and protection of human rights and fundamental freedoms while countering terrorism.  All of these organizations have raised legitimate and /credible concerns about the SCC specifically, and Saudi repression of those who disagree with the government more broadly.

Some may say, “stick to sports!”, or wonder what these issues have to do with a horse race. The question matters given the timing of the Saudi Cup’s inauguration and the framing of the event.

The Saudi Cup is no one-off, and horse racing is not alone among sports in having to reckon with a marquee event.  Though this is the first effort made at such a grand scope to get racehorses worldwide to point toward a marquee race day in the Kingdom, it is far from the only event to lure international sports stars to Saudi Arabia in recent years. 

In December Anthony Joshua defeated Andy Ruiz, Jr. to win the major boxing heavyweight belts; the fight happened in Diriyah, outside of Riyadh.  Last month the Dakar Rally, one of the world’s top marathon off-road races, was contested for the first time in Saudi Arabia; plans are in place to host the rally in Saudi Arabia for at least five years.  In 2019 the European Tour, the top-level golf tour in Europe, began to contest the Saudi International tournament; the 2020 edition wrapped up February 2.

The official justification for this explosion in major sporting events in Saudi Arabia ties into Vision 2030, the plan for the country’s social and economic future that Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman announced in 2016.  According to a December 6, 2019 BBC article HRH Prince Abdulaziz bin Turki Al Faisal, chairman of the General Sports Authority, stated to BBC sports editor Dan Roan that the rise in international sporting events is intended to get Saudi citizens more physically active.  And, tying back to the text of Vision 2030, world-class sporting events tie directly to the stated goal for Saudi Arabia to “be among the leaders in selected sports regionally and globally.”

On the surface, the narrative fits, but taking that argument at face value is shallow.  As political scientist Joseph Nye, who coined the term “soft power”, states in his 1990 Foreign Policy article of the same name, “A state may achieve the outcomes it prefers in world politics because other states want to follow it or have agreed to a situation that produces such effects.”  Nye continues, “If a state can make its power seem legitimate in the eyes of others, it will encounter less resistance to its wishes…If it can establish international norms consistent with its society, it is less likely to have to change.”  In other words, instead of using or threatening force to get its way, a country can use other leverage to get its way. Ways to get that leverage include “cultural and ideological attraction”.

The shining visions of culture, sport, technology, diversified energy, and government transparency listed in Saudi Arabia’s publicly released and oft-cited “Vision 2030” are a way of exerting soft power, of gaining respect on the world stage through the power of attraction instead of a show of force.  Sports are another common way of trying to leverage soft power for, both to gain global standing as well as to paper over political repression with a grand spectacle of something broadly beloved and seemingly apolitical — it’s just a game, right? But, sports have political context, too.

August 7, 2019, at a press conference in Saratoga, the Saudi Cup was unveiled to the horse racing world.  Prince Bandar Khalid al Faisal, chairman of the Jockey Club of Saudi Arabia, stated: “We look forward to welcoming international horsemen and women, the media, racing enthusiasts, and the public to Riyadh in 2020.”

Prince Bandar’s specific wording about the opportunities the Saudi Cup will provide to “horsemen and women” sounds like several already-revealed pages from the Vision 2030 public relations playbook.  Consider the efforts to get a Saudi female driver in the 2021 Dakar Rally.  The WWE, who started doing shows in 2014 featuring “males only”, finally had its first women’s wrestling match last October in Riyadh, between Natalya and Lacey Evans.

But, the broader picture of women’s standing in Saudi Arabia is far more complicated than these sports highlights.

As noted on page 14 of this month’s Amnesty International report, the country has made some actual reforms in recent years. Women began receiving driver’s licenses in June 2018.  The next year saw the loosening of some of the restrictions of the guardianship system, a framework of laws and customs which has required women to depend on men’s permission in legal, civic, and even personal matters. A guardianship system still exists, but royal decrees were made in 2019 to allow women to get passports; travel abroad; register marriages, divorces, and children; and obtain family documents without explicit male approval.

Those are undeniably improvements to Saudi Arabia’s legal treatment of women.  However, according to activists who spoke to Human Rights Watch, Saudi authorities commanded people not to speak out in 2017 when they announced plans to end the driving ban.  In May 2018, the month before women began to get driver’s licenses in Saudi Arabia, there was a round of arrests of Saudi women’s rights activists.  Some of them remain in custody, due to violations of vague antiterrorism laws. Their enumerated offenses include speaking to international journalists.

Prince Bandar’s pronouncement that he looks forward to welcoming the media also rings hollow given how the Kingdom has treated journalists who do not walk the government’s line.

Anyone who has read the news in the last year and a half knows the name Jamal Khashoggi, a Saudi journalist. Though he was not a lifelong dissident, during his journalistic career in Saudi Arabia he suffered consequences for doing things people in a country with a more free press may take for granted being able to do: publishing critiques of the government, and leading a news station that was taken off the air for interviewing an opposition leader.  He stated publicly that he exiled himself from the country in order to speak more freely about his concerns related to the government. In the final year of his life he wrote a column for the Washington Post; among its topics was the tight control Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman maintained over the media.  He walked into the Saudi Arabian embassy in Istanbul, Turkey on October 2, 2018 to get papers he needed for his upcoming marriage.  Khashoggi never walked out of that embassy.

Upon investigation Agnes Callamard, acting as the UN Special Rapporteur on extrajudicial, summary, or arbitrary killings, concluded that Khashoggi’s killing was an extrajudicial killing for which the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia is responsible.  As outlined in a report released on June 19, 2019 Callamard found, among a long list of concerning circumstances around his death, significant deficiencies in both the investigation of Khashoggi’s death and the trial of 11 people accused of carrying out his killing.  Wrote Callamard, “The trial is held behind closed doors; the identity of those charged has not been released nor is the identity of those facing the death penalty. At the time of writing, at least one of those identified as responsible for the planning and organizing of the execution of Mr. Khashoggi has not been charged.”

One journalist being the target of government repression is one too many, but Jamal Khashoggi is not the only one.  Saudi Arabia is aware that its detention of journalists tarnishes its reputation on the world stage, to the extent that it allowed a delegation from international press freedom organization Reporters without Borders to meet with government ministers in July 2019.  The ministers expressed dissatisfaction that the organization ranked Saudi Arabia so low on its press freedom index, but made no commitment to release 30 journalists that the organization alleged were detained.  In its 2019 survey, the Committee to Protect Journalists stated that at least 26 journalists were held in captivity, including 18 for whom the charges had not been disclosed.

At its heart, this is why horse racing needs to be concerned. Anyone who follows the sport will have to acknowledge the Saudi Cup is happening, since the best horses in the world are racing there and the results will impact the season going forward.  But, we also need to think critically about what the event asks us to accept.

A spectacle of the best horses in the world running for the biggest purse in the world asks us to buy into it as part of Vision 2030’s narrative of Saudi Arabia becoming more open and inviting the world’s attention.  Evidence suggests that this spotlight on major sporting events casts a shadow over continued repression of critical speech from both activists and journalists. Prince Bandar’s invitation last August for the world to watch, attend, and cover the Saudi Cup can only be understood in the broader context of what the Saudi government allows people to see, discuss, and state publicly.

It’s time to take off the blinkers.

what is it going to take?

i had more hope on March 9, 2020 than i have any day since.

it was one of the last days before the pandemic went from feeling like a faraway threat to something serious enough to keep this away-from-homebody locked up for days, weeks, months on end. life felt normal still, in that sense. i got up, did a CANTER visit on the backside of Hawthorne, then met up with a friend for a few hours before he left town. and then i finally had a few minutes to find a table in a coffeeshop downtown, plug in my laptop, and sit with the news from that morning, the sheaf of indictments against Jason Servis and Jorge Navarro and 25 others connected to drugging racehorses.

as disgusted as i was, i was glad there was more out in the open to sort through. i was glad there was something right in front of our faces, in black and white, stained with the red of blood and anger. if anything was going to bring us to a point of cleaning up house, it had to be this.

of course, i didn’t expect anything to change overnight. i’ve been to law school, and i know how slowly judicial wheels turn. but there were improvements. horses were moved out of the Servis barn, out of the Navarro barn. they continued their careers elsewhere and found their levels. some, like Firenze Fire, remained stakes horses. others dropped down the class ladder. they were running where they were supposed to run, not where they had been concocted to run, and it was a relief.

next month will mark two years since those indictments have dropped. there have been guilty pleas from several of the people implicated in the March 2020 indictments, including Jorge Navarro, who admitted in a hearing last year that he had given PEDs to War Story, Shancelot, Sharp Azteca, Nanoosh. he admitted giving them to X Y Jet, who had dropped dead in his barn two months before the indictments came out. the indictments and his admission gave harrowing shape to the suspicions so many had, the suspicions that made Navarro’s statement after X Y Jet’s death so disquieting, a public lamentation of a death he so likely hastened.

and yet, not enough has happened. not all of those cases have been resolved, not everything yet brought to light. in the meantime we’ve had another moment that felt, just as the indictments did, that it would be a watershed moment: Medina Spirit’s positive test for betamethasone after the Kentucky Derby. over nine months after that Derby, it has yet to be resolved. Medina Spirit is still the winner*. Bob Baffert cannot earn Kentucky Derby points or run at Churchill Downs, after both Medina Spirit’s positive and Gamine’s disqualification from a third in the Kentucky Oaks in 2020. but, it’s an inconsistent reaction: some places welcome him, others do not.

it’s not just the Grade 1 fixtures, either. Just this week Juan Vazquez — who already lost stud book privileges in 2017 due to his history of violations — got another monthlong suspension from racing after a pair of levamisole positives from last last year. Just this week Marcus Vitali — who has had years of drug positives and suspensions — was suspended for a year after a meth positive in Pennsylvania. the Vitali situation is especially illustrative of my current frustration. He has had a disturbing history of violations in state after state after state, and even showed up in my backyard of Hawthorne in the fall of 2020 as part of his quest to find tracks who will let him run. some states and tracks say no. others still say yes, and he even has two horses entered at Turf Paradise next week.

how many weeks have we had like this between March 2020 and now?

i keep telling myself things take time, but how much time is it going to take?

horses are bred to run. but, they have no say about what goes into their bodies before the race. they can’t tell someone “no” if they’re being given something to mask pain for an upcoming race day, or something that theoretically supercharges their circulatory system, which who-knows-what side effects. they have no choice but to trust the people who are charged to care for them. by getting involved in horse racing we’re taking on a responsibility for these horses, and winning cannot come at the cost of their health. regulations and prohibitions around drugs in racing is a question of fairness, but it’s also a question of protecting the horses who are our sport.

about two years ago, i had so much hope that the New York indictments would galvanize horse racing around this idea. i hoped it would enhance scrutiny, strengthen the resolve of states and tracks alike to investigate and take action against people who are breaking the rules, and become the beginning of a unified front to tell repeat offenders that enough is enough.

now? i’m afraid that if what has happened in the last two years hasn’t been enough to tie the sport together in a concerted effort to do better, nothing will be. i’m grateful for the tracks and the states that are being more strict. but, it’s not everywhere. and as much as it hurts me to admit that this is affecting my love of the sport? it is. how much more has to happen? what else is it going to take?

i don’t know. but i do know that i have less hope now than i have since i became a horse racing fan.

an incantation of the present

Horse racing is a game with a past, and it’s a game obsessed with its past. People, myself included, love a story about the good old days. Jim O’Donnell’s recent column in the Daily Herald imagines the racetrack, after Saturday’s sunset, coming alive with the past. It’s a fun thing to imagine, something far different than the most likely reality of my upcoming Saturday night, which is likely to feature one too many tear-diluted beers at Jimmy D’s as all of us who venture across the street swap stories of our own pasts, and of the uncertain future.

But, my story at the racetrack began after much of that glorious past ended. I’ve met a few of the people and horses O’Donnell mentions: Roger Brueggemann, The Pizza Man, Marty Nixon, Eddie Perez. Almost all of what people talk about when they talk about Arlington happened before my time, though.

By the time I started coming around, in the summer of 2013, racing in Illinois was already on shaky ground. Calls for a gaming bill had been falling on deaf ears for a decade and a half, perhaps even longer, and the sun was about to set on the casino impact fee. As much as I wanted to tune it out, I couldn’t completely shut my ears to the thrumming underneath, that Arlington’s final days were coming some year.

Yet, I kept showing up. The history was nice, and I tried to learn as much of that as possible. But, history wasn’t going to be what kept me coming.

I still saw something glorious in the present. Something was enough to capture my eyes and imagination, enough to keep me coming back, enough to not only convince me to spend so much of my free time thinking about horse racing, but to finally turn my back on a “respectable” career in computer security and instead become a professional racetrack denizen.

There’s Frostbite Falls. He caught my eye more than any of the horses who ran in the Arlington Million later in the afternoon when I fell in love with horse racing. He didn’t win his race, but the compact, nearly-black son of City Place won my heart…and some different races along the way.

There’s the Illinois-bred class born in 2011, now ten years old, to whom I still owe a far more detailed love letter than I can write tonight. They were two-year-olds in the summer and fall of 2013, just getting their racing careers started as I began to figure out the game as well. Iker’s big white blaze kept crossing the wire second, assuming he kept his jockey; he figured it out by the end of his two-year-old year, kept trying, and was at his best ever at age eight. Sweep E Prado pranced around the paddock before the Jim Edgar Illinois Futurity, a big grey with a pink nose, seven words that could describe his sire as well: Illinois legend Fort Prado, who I fell in love with through his babies. Try Arguing Harder’s name spoke to me, as a recovering lawyer; I never got to see him win in person, as he only seemed to hit the wire first when he shipped out of town. Swarm, Sea Treaty, Purely Given, Flashdance Road, a million names that take me back to my early days as a railbird.

There are so many more through the next eight years, as present slowly became history.

Saint Leon, who only got better as the years passed.

Puntsville, the striking grey who won my heart and so many races..

Dani Nikki and Nikaluk, whose battles were the stuff of legend.

Super Nova, the first Three Hour Nap debut winner who bore the weight of my confidence, and carried it first across the wire.

Hapman, who didn’t need a rider to get his morning exercise in.

He’s a Council, who almost killed me.

Le Dimanche, who I mourn every time I gaze down the Arlington stretch.

Goneghost, once an awkward three-year-old with stringhalt, who grew into a swift grey streak.

Dabo, who swallowed the stretch like it was nothing at all.

Gramercy, who rediscovered her home at seven furlongs on the Arlington main.

Purr Sea, so happy to relax with her head on my shoulder.

This weekend, as Arlington races three more days before a future somewhere between uncertainty and oblivion, many people’s incantations will sound like Equipoise, Secretariat, even The Pizza Man. Mine will sound like these, and like a hundred more who will break from the folds in my brain and race through my mind over the next three days and beyond. Their names define my eight years and counting at the racetracks in Chicago, and they are the horses who remind me that Chicago racing does not just have a past, but also a present.

August 30, 1981

they breathe
heartbeat, battery
hay –
they are theatre

abhorrent to the
bettor, one
jet, roar, banter
then one
beat a

another, to earn honor
on the throne

Yesterday, while poking around the internet for poetic ideas, I stumbled across a French collective called the Ouvroir de Litterature Potentielle (OULIPO), the Workshop of Potential Literature. It was my first time hearing of this group, but as someone who has always enjoyed writing poetry in forms, I found myself fascinated by the fact that they just…have taken the idea of constraint as inspiration to find the audacity to decide that something is a form, and write within that form. I dropped what I was doing, took the bus to Harold Washington Library, and checked out (or put on hold) everything I could find in their catalog about OULIPO. Earlier today, I barreled through The State of Constraint.

Then, before I lost my nerve. I pulled out a pen. I borrowed their idea of the Beau Present — writing a poem with only the letters in a name, or a matched pair of names. I chose a matched pair, John Henry and The Bart. I added my own constraint, based on the fractions of the first Arlington Million: 25.1, 50.1, 1:15.3, 1:42.2, 2:07.3. Each digit defined the number of syllables in each line. Zeroes meant line breaks.

the career maiden – #36

In 2016 and 2017, I wrote a newsletter called The Career Maiden. In May of 2017,

I resurrected it today. In my latest issue, I discuss my thoughts about both the hiatus and my recent writing life more broadly. And then, just as I always did, I share some links to my writing, some links to thinks I’ve enjoyed reading recently, and perhaps the most epic horse nose I’ve ever shared in one of my newsletters.

If you’d like to hear from me in your inbox every so often, you can subscribe here.

Maiden Win Trends Among Kentucky Derby Starters

Most people who follow two-year-old races have a general idea of what kinds of maiden races to follow in order to find potential Kentucky Derby contenders.  Though baby races begin in March and April, the real excitement begins to build through the summer with the loaded maiden special weights at Saratoga and Del Mar, and continues through the classy winter racing at Gulfstream and Oaklawn.

But, I wondered if there were any trends that could suggest the types of maiden races whose winners tend to go on and start in the Kentucky Derby in a more methodical way than just following the buzz, or in a finer-grained way than just looking at all the maiden races on the A-level circuits.  As we all know, correlation does not mean causation — but in such a cluttered world as the racing calendar, correlation may offer a few suggestions on which kinds of maiden races to watch a little more closely.

So, I researched the maiden victories Kentucky Derby starter from the 1992 Kentucky Derby to the present, and began to mine the results for patterns.  Most of the data points were gathered from reading their charts published on Information for international starters was supplemented with data from the starters’ pages on, as well as (for Japanese starters), (for UAE starters), as well as contemporaneous news accounts.

This is what I found.

Maiden Win Distances

I would expect, since the Kentucky Derby is a mile and a quarter race, that horses would generally break their maidens going long, or at least going longer than an early-season baby race.  Of course, there would be some who won going short: either because they were route horses but more precocious or classy than their foes, because they were versatile, because their trainer’s program emphasizes working up to a longer distance, or because they were stone-cold sprinters whose owners had a bit of Derby Fever.

Over the entire 1992-2018 period, this is the distribution of distance categories of races in which non-maiden Kentucky Derby starters broke their maidens.  Over that time period, that includes 493 of the 498 starters. The five maiden starters during that period are not included in this or any other charts, given that they focus on maiden wins.  For the sake of generalization:

  • Sprint means a one-turn or straightaway race of six furlongs or less.
  • Extended Sprint means a one-turn or straightaway race of more than six furlongs.
  • Two Turn means a two-turn race.

Looking more closely at the actual distances of the races, the distances at which Derby starters over the entire 1992-2018 time period broke their maidens ranged from 3 to 9 furlongs, with a mean of 6.756 furlongs and a median of 6.5 furlongs.  The distribution of distances is as follows:

I’d expect the maiden wins to skew toward longer distances once the point system was determined, since points races demand route form in order to get a spot in the starting gate on the first Saturday in May.  Though Derby horses breaking their maidens in sprints have not completely disappeared, the prevalence has diminished since the institution of the Derby points system in 2013.

Looking back at the actual distances of maiden wins, that expected skew toward longer distances has borne out to some extent.  In the last 21 Derbies before the points era (1992-2012), the maiden win distances ranged from 3 to 9 furlongs, with a mean of 6.686 furlongs and a median of 6.5 furlongs.  In the points era (2013-2018), the maiden win distances ranged from 4.5 to 9 furlongs, with a mean of 6.99 furlongs and a median of 7 furlongs.

Looking more broadly to distance categories, though extended-sprint and two-turn races weren’t uncommon by any means, maiden wins for Derby starters were weighted toward traditional sprints.

Though traditional sprint distances of six furlongs or shorter make up enough of Derby starters’ maiden wins that they remain relevant even in the points era, both extended sprints and routes have become more common sources of Derby starters, by proportion, than they were before the advent of Derby points.

Maiden Win Types

Unsurprisingly, most Kentucky Derby starters break their maidens in open maiden special weight races.  Of the 493 Kentucky Derby starters between 1992 and the present who were no longer maidens when they loaded into the Derby starting gate, 434 got their diplomas in an open maiden special weight, or a similar race in another country. (Similar races abroad are either maiden races or races restricted to unraced horses, that were not claiming races or selling races.)

The next largest group, 21 horses, broke their maidens in state-bred maiden special weights.  The usual suspects account for most of them: twelve starters broke their maidens in New York-bred maiden specials, and six in California-bred.  The only Derby starters since 1992 to break their maiden in a state-bred maiden special anywhere else were Vicar’s In Trouble and Zarb’s Magic, who graduated amongst Louisiana-breds, and Dazzling Falls, who beat fellow Nebraska-breds at Ak-Sar-Ben.

I had expected to see more eventual Derby horses break their maidens against winners.  But, it’s unlikely — in fact, it’s almost as likely to see a Derby horse get a maiden win against winners as it is to see a Derby starter break their maiden for a tag.  Seven Derby starters since 1992 broke their maidens in graded stakes, six in an ungraded open stakes, and three in a state-bred stakes. Four others beat winners in other races: three in allowance (or European “novice”) races, and one in a handicap.  That adds up to 20 starters in the time period who broke their maidens against winners — only slightly eclipsing the 17 Derby starters who got their first wins when up for a claiming tag.

Two of those runners who graduated for a claiming tag ended up winning: Mine That Bird (2009) and Charismatic (1999).  Oddly enough, that’s a better win record than the horses who graduated against winners have. None of the Derby winners since 1992 broke their maiden against horses who had already won.  The best any has done was second place, achieved by 2017 Breeders’ Cup Juvenile (G1) maiden-breaker Good Magic (2018).

When Are They Graduating?

Odds are, since this was published in December, most of the 2019 Kentucky Derby starters have already broken their maidens.  

Looking at the starters in the Kentucky Derby from 1992 through 2018, about half had broken their maidens by the end of September of their two-year-old year; by the end of December, 420 of the 493 non-maiden Kentucky Derby starters during that time period had broken their maidens.

This gives an idea of the distribution of maiden wins, but ther eare several trends worth looking at in specific parts of the year.

Late Summer, Early Fall

The apex of the Derby starters’ maiden victories came in the summer of the two-year-old year comes through the late summer and early fall of the two-year-old season, August through October.  45% of the starters who broke their maidens — 226 out of 493 — broke their maidens during that time period.

Through August and September, New York reigns supreme.  That’s especially true in August: 34 of the 76 August maiden-breakers broke their maidens in New York.  I was expecting California to be closer, with the Del Mar meet — but only 13 graduated in August in Southern California, which is closer to the 10 from the Mid-Atlantic circuit than the towering New York circuit.

Kentucky, which only accounted for three of the Derby starters’ maiden wins in August, kicks it up in September (18 of 74) and October (24 of 76).  That makes sense, between the oppressive summer heat beginning to dissipate and the move from Ellis to Churchill and Keeneland. Though the heat will always be a factor, it will be worth watching whether Ellis produces more maiden winners who make it to the Derby in the coming years, as more top barns zoom in on the rising purses at the Pea Patch.

Winter Flux

The activity in December and January was expected given the cadence of the Derby season, but given that racing circuits shift from fall to winter during that time of year, it made me wonder where the more live circuits were in those months.  November’s heavily prominent circuits are the expected ones — Kentucky, Southern California, and New York — but when does the action fly south for the winter?

December is the real month of flux. when the focus seems to filter most broadly across racing circuits.  Florida and Southern California lead with seven maiden winners each over the 1992-2018 period, but December in Kentucky has yielded six, Louisiana five, and New York four.  

However, looking at the dates of the maiden victories reveals what one would expect to see in Kentucky: the importance of Turfway has plummeted since they switched to a synthetic surface.  On the other hand, the importance of Fair Grounds as a source of December maiden winners that have made it to the Derby has been mostly recent. Southern California, New York, and Florida tracks have been factors throughout the period.

In January, a pair of circuits come into focus.  Florida and Southern California ruled the roost. Though January heralds the beginning of Oaklawn, its maiden winners rarely find the Derby starting gate.  And, though Fair Grounds is in full swing, their maiden winners in January have not been a strong source of Derby starters.

Despite Oaklawn’s raw number being low, it may just be the head of a trend, especially if Oaklawn’s massive maiden purses continue.  After all, both January Oaklawn maiden winners to make the Derby were recent: Hence in 2017 and Magnum Moon in 2018.

Fruitful Circuits, and the Curious Case of Florida

Looking specifically at racing circuits, the data does show that the tracks we think of as the Usual Suspects produce the most maiden winners who eventually run in the Derby.  New York, Southern California, and Kentucky maiden winners, taken together, account for 313 of the 498 Kentucky Derby runners from 1992 to the present. New York accounts for 112, Southern California is just behind with 109, and Kentucky can claim 92.

Sitting in fourth place is Florida, with 60 maiden winners.

In a Derby context, Florida is usually considered a winter circuit — a place where many of the top New York barns take their top horses and flee the snow.  But, the data also shows a smattering of maiden winners in Florida through the summer, when it isn’t one of the top circuits.

Dividing the Florida data by track shows the Gulfstream winners concentrated through the winter, and most of the two-year-old summer winners coming from Calder.  Calder does refer to specifically when it was called Calder; races at the facility from 2014 to the present, when it has been called Gulfstream West, are marked as such.  This suggests that the more recent trend skews toward Gulfstream — and the chart looking at the Florida maiden winners by Derby year bears out that Gulfstream has been the main source of Derby starters among Florida maiden winners in recent years.

Looking at the Derby starters by year who broke their maiden in Florida, it backs up the idea that Gulfstream is, in recent times, the most important among Florida tracks with respect to producing maiden winners.

Running Style

As Derby prospects, I’ve always been more drawn to horses who proved they could rate from off the pace — in poker terms, it gives the horse more outs.  A proven rating gear suggests that they don’t have to get the lead to win a race. Perhaps, if they show that passing gear in the maiden ranks, they could have more time to refine it before getting to the Derby.  But, on the other hand, I wondered whether there would be a skew toward speed, because of a “come and catch me, I’ve got the best horse” mentality that riders could have, legitimately, with a lot of true Derby prospects going against maidens.

At the risk of getting distracted by making too many gradations between running styles, I grouped the winning trips in maiden races into three buckets: those who led at every call of their maiden race (“wire”), those who did not lead at every call, but were no more than a length from the pace at any call (“press”), and those who were more than a length off the pace at any one call of their maiden victory (“pass”).

Just over half of the Derby starters from 1992-2018 for whom we had data were over a length away from the pace at one or more calls: 54.8%.  Among the rest, it was almost an even split between wire jobs (22.0%) and pressing trips (23.2%).

As far as whether they make it to the Derby, running style in a maiden win indicates little.

However, it may be more useful to suggest how they actually do in the Derby.  Based on the Derby starters since 1992, it seems my idea that horses who can pass other horses are better prospects might not be too far off base, given how their median (and even 25th percentile!) performances compare with horses who were no more than a length from the lead at any call in their maiden victory, or ones who led at every call.

The median Derby placing for a horse who wired their maiden win is 12th, and 11th for horses who were no more than a length off the pace at any call.  But, for horses who passed from further off the pace than that, their median placing is 8th. For both wire and press styles, the 25th percentile is 16th place — but for the pass style, 75% of Derby starters finish in 13th place or better.

Limitations and Expansions

Of course, this dataset has its limitations in both time and scope, and any analysis of this particular dataset has related limits.

As far as time is concerned, I went no earlier than 1992 because does not publish charts earlier than 1991, and I do not have access to paper chart books from the 1980s and 1990.  This would be interesting from a historical perspective, but is a lower priority given the goal of my research. Given the changes in horse racing over time, and the goal of trying to identify the types of maiden races that may be worth more focus in the future, I’m more concerned with strengthening the scope of analysis with respect to more recent races than trying to expand earlier than the 1992 Kentucky Derby.

The Kentucky Derby is just one race with up to twenty horses, so it may be worthwhile to expand the dataset to Preakness and Belmont starters as well, and see how the results compare.  This expansion is feasible given my practical constraints: the fact that I would have to gather all of this data from searching charts manually on the Equibase website and putting the data in a spreadsheet.  It would mean a few more afternoons of sifting through results, but may offer something to strengthen or weaken these as Triple Crown trends.

Of even more use would be to be able to compare these trends among eventual Derby starters to maiden race results in general.  For example, questions that come to mind include:

  • Are the maiden races that produce Kentucky Derby starters any longer or shorter than maiden races in general?
  • The average Kentucky Derby starter in this time period takes 2.121 starts to break their maiden.  How does this compare to other stakes horses? Other three-year-old stakes horses? Horses in general?

Answering these questions would require comparing the data for Derby starters to the trends in all maiden races over that time period.  That data is too voluminous to gather by hand, chart-by-chart, though it would be fascinating to do that analysis if that data became available in searchable format.  And, given the access to broader control groups, it would give a better idea of how significant each of these patterns actually are.

Frontier Red

Frontier Red
a bay more brown than blood
when shrouded by sweat and twilight
only occasionally sparkling
when she passes under the burning floodlights

most of the time the winner trots back
easily, head held high
a quarter-mile victory stroll

she laboured back, dragging her empty rear hooves behind her
hanging her head, bobbing it up and down, searching
for any current of spare oxygen her flaring nostrils could catch
to replenish reserves run empty
by fighting to the wire to beat
six other non-winners
     of one pari-mutuel
     to be claimed for eight thousand dollars
a level that wouldn’t test so many on the grounds
but only left her with enough
to perform the herculean labours of
lifting her eyes to the winners’ circle camera
and trudging home

building Catholic Boy’s foundation

When I think of Catholic Boy, I think of the unheralded hard work that goes into building a great horse’s foundation.  I think of running in circles, measured circles, incessant circles.

In the week and a half leading up to the Breeders’ Cup last year, I spent the mornings trackside, radio clipped to my side, spotting Breeders’ Cup horses and calling their names and positions up to the camera nest.  Most of the horses wouldn’t spend much time out on the track.  They’d come out, jog a circuit or two, three at the most, then go back to the barn.

Not Catholic Boy.  He’d come out, we’d spot him, they’d show him on the camera for a while.  Then, a flurry of activity.  Horses would come in through the backstretch gap, there would be five or six other superstars of our sport to cut between.  Then, another lull.

“Anyone out here?”, the camera spotter’s voice on the radio would crackle.

I’d look up, see a familiar bay horse with a familiar maroon Bridlewood Farm saddle pad draped over a towel numbered 803.

Was it because he debuted at Gulfstream long after the geese, the cranes, and the best horses in the nation had returned north for the summer?  Was it because he skipped the traditional final round of preps, training straight from the With Anticipation in August all the way to November, around and around and away from the shouting throngs gathered along the rail on Saturday afternoons?  Was it because the name Jonathan Thomas didn’t roll off the tongue as easily, from years of repetition, as Aidan O’Brien or Chad Brown or Charlie Appleby or Graham Motion?

I’d push my button.  “Just Catholic Boy, coming past the seven furlong gap now.  Everyone else left.”

Canadian Triple Crown Trifectas

As soon as Wonder Gadot, Aheadbyacentury, and Cooler Mike crossed the wire 1-2-3 in the Prince of Wales, I wondered whether they were the first repeat trifecta in the first two races of the Canadian Triple Crown.

They are.  Never before yesterday had the trifecta repeated itself in the Queen’s Plate (or the King’s Plate, depending on who wears the British crown) and the Prince of Wales.

The only other time two races now known as parts of the Canadian Triple Crown even had the same trifecta predated the Canadian Triple Crown as we know it.

The Prince of Wales didn’t exist yet in 1921, but that was the year when the King’s Plate and the Breeders’ Stakes saw the same three horses cross the wire first in the same order. Herendesy, Royal Visitor, and Moll Cutpurse crossed the wire in the first three spots in the King’s Plate that year, and repeated that achievement in order in the Breeders’ that year.  The Prince of Wales didn’t yet exist; it would first be run in 1929 at Thorncliffe.

Those who like to box their bets got lucky a few times with Plate trifectas in later Canadian Triple Crown races.

In 1940, Willie the Kid, Curwen, and Hood finished 1-2-3 in the King’s Plate. In the Prince of Wales Hood found the wire first, but Willie the Kid and Curwen followed him home in the next two slots.

In 1942 there was another trifecta box.  Ten to Ace, Cossack Post, and Depressor filled out the top three in the King’s Plate; Ten to Ace won the Prince of Wales, but Depressor beat out Cossack Post for the place that time.

It was a few years, but there was another trifecta box in 1989.  With Approval won the Queen’s Plate, with Most Valiant and Domasca Dan next across the wire.  With Approval scored in the Prince of Wales — but that time Domasca Dan beat Most Valiant for place honours.  The trifecta box didn’t repeat again in the Breeders’ that year — after all, Domasca Dan didn’t contest the race.  But, two other familiar faces finished in familiar places: Most Valiant did chased home second behind With Approval, who clinched the Canadian Triple Crown.

A trifecta box next happened in 1994. Basqueian, Bruce’s Mill, and Parental Pressure crossed the wire in the first three spots in the Plate. Bruce’s Mill won the Prince of Wales — but the next two horses to cross the wire were Basqueian and Parental Pressure. Basqueian won the Breeders’, but neither Bruce’s Mill nor Parental Pressure contested that race.

And now, if Canadian horse racing history comes up at your next pub quiz, you know.

The Underground Man, two times two, and Justify

So said Fyodor Dostoevsky in his masterpiece “Notes from Underground“:

With the ant-heap the respectable race of ants began and with the ant- heap they will probably end, which does the greatest credit to their perseverance and good sense. But man is a frivolous and incongruous creature, and perhaps, like a chess player, loves the process of the game, not the end of it.

Since the horses crossed the wire in the Belmont on Saturday afternoon, since the end of the “game” that is the Triple Crown season, I felt dread over having to fill out my NTRA All Ages poll.

The three-year-old poll was obvious, of course, at least as obvious as a poll of opinions can be.  There was, as always, a lot of splitting hairs underneath…but Justify reigned supreme.  Winning a Triple Crown makes that obvious.

But, his accomplishment gave me a crisis of conscience about my All Ages poll.

And who knows (there is no saying with certainty), perhaps the only goal on earth to which mankind is striving lies in this incessant process of attaining, in other words, in life itself, and not in the thing to be attained, which must always be expressed as a formula, as positive as twice two makes four, and such positiveness is not life, gentlemen, but is the beginning of death.

Leading into the Belmont Justify was not on my All Ages ballot, and I was seriously considering not putting him on there again.  After all, one thing is positive: he hasn’t faced older horses.  To be the best, you’ve got to beat the best — and on average, “the best” are older horses.  Justify is a freak — but his only foes have been three-year-olds.  How can I rank him better than the older horses if he hasn’t been tested against them yet?

With that question, the thought of putting Justify on my all-aged poll at all makes me sick to my stomach.

It makes sense to base my votes on things I know.  Twice two makes four.  Older horses are, on average, more developed, stronger, better than three-year-olds.  Justify may be the exception, may be more developed than some top-class older horses, but how do we know, if he’s only ever beaten three-year-olds?

Anyway, man has always been afraid of this mathematical certainty, and I am afraid of it now. Granted that man does nothing but seek that mathematical certainty, he traverses oceans, sacrifices his life in the quest, but to succeed, really to find it, dreads, I assure you. He feels that when he has found it there will be nothing for him to look for. When workmen have finished their work they do at least receive their pay, they go to the tavern, then they are taken to the police-station — and there is occupation for a week. But where can man go? Anyway, one can observe a certain awkwardness about him when he has attained such objects. He loves the process of attaining, but does not quite like to have attained, and that, of course, is very absurd. In fact, man is a comical creature; there seems to be a kind of jest in it all.

But, on the other hand?  My search for anything approximating mathematical certainty in the older division has eluded me.  Since “six furlongs on the turf” is a little too specific a niche to be a division (sorry, Disco Partner!), the closest thing any division has to a clear leader is the open sprint division, with Mind Your Biscuits.  His Golden Shaheen (G1) victory was a triumph.  The Met Mile (G1) was a defeat in which he lost absolutely nothing: he missed by just a nose behind lone speed, going a distance longer than his best.  He’s a superstar, but he hasn’t had an unprecedented kind of season.  Heart to Heart has emerged best in the middle-distance turf division, Accelerate is the top of the handicap division…but how far above the rest do they loom?

They’ve had good seasons so far, but none of them have done anything that, if portrayed in a work of fiction, would cause you to roll your eyes and murmur that it couldn’t happen in real life.

Justify has.

If you tried to tell me a horse would go from unraced three-year-old to Triple Crown winner in under four months, I’d have told you that would never happen.  If you handed me a book about a horse whose star rose so fast, I’d have scoffed at the implausible plot.  Yet, I’ve now seen it happen with my own two eyes because Justify did it.

But yet mathematical certainty is after all, something insufferable. Twice two makes four seems to me simply a piece of insolence. Twice two makes four is a pert coxcomb who stands with arms akimbo barring your path and spitting. I admit that twice two makes four is an excellent thing, but if we are to give everything its due, twice two makes five is sometimes a very charming thing too.

Is Justify better than the older horses?  Will he beat older company later this year?  We won’t know until he tries.  In that sense, I’m still not quite happy about my choice to put Justify on my All Ages ballot at all.

But, he has changed my definition of what it’s possible for a racehorse to do, and has done that while racing a grueling Triple Crown schedule.  I’m more certain of the fact that Justify has done something truly difficult than I am about anything in the older horse landscape right now. When so little elsewhere is stable maybe it’s not such a bad thing to break my rule, surrender begrudgingly to the wisdom of the Underground Man, and let twice two be five this time around.

final NTRA poll thoughts

I voted in the NTRA Top Thoroughbred Poll for the first time this year.  Some weeks were more difficult than others, but this week’s was the most brain-busting of all.

I had assumed all year that it would be the easiest.  After all, Breeders’ Cup is the big ending, and it’s the last poll of the year.  Though Breeders’ Cup is not the last big racing week before the Eclipse Awards — let’s not sneeze at Thanksgiving weekend, with races like the Clark and the Cigar Mile — it’s the only one of this scale, and nothing between now and the end of the year comes quite to the level of a Derby undercard, Belmont undercard, or Travers Day.

Yet?  It was the hardest.  Though Breeders’ Cup answered a lot of questions in individual divisions, the fact that the Top Thoroughbred Poll requires a voter to rank the divisions against each other makes it more difficult.  Most of my questions involved assessing not only what each horse did in their own division this year, but also how that stacks up against what horses in other divisions did.  Even with a rather sharp limitation that I’ve chosen to apply, that of not using horses who have not faced older company at least once during the year, many of the rank judgments felt uncomfortably tight.

Here’s my final ballot, with short notes on my rationale.

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