Not yet midway through the card on Kentucky Derby Day last year, Churchill Downs track superintendent Butch Lehr walked the gangplank to face the media and absorb their inquisition. To the assembled, Lehr stated what none of them believed: There was nothing unusual about the racing surface that day.
If that were so, Lehr could have remained where keepers of tracks prefer to be: anonymous. Like baseball umpires, track superintendents are doing their best work when they go unnoticed. However, when first-condition allowance horses bust the venerable track's record for 6 1/2 furlongs by .77 of a second; when the mark for seven furlongs falls by .68 of a second; and when 2-year-olds shave .32 of a second off the five-furlong record, anonymity is no longer an option.
There are any number of theories why the racing surface that day resembled Interstate 65. One holds that racing organizations and officials think freshly minted records translate into fan excitement and national publicity. This one is mainly for conspiracy theorists and Oliver Stone fans.
Another theory holds that a loose, slower racing surface, combined with Midwestern humidity, can make the track sticky in spots, increasing the chance for a catastrophic breakdown if a horse hits an uneven patch. Deep and loose equates to soft-tissue injury. On the other hand, racing over harder surfaces can cause bones to crack.
Looking back almost a year later, Lehr noted that on hot, humid days such as last year, the track can play a second faster than normal. "Historically," he said, "we catch criticism for the track being too loose and sandy. On humid days, though, the moisture stays in the track longer. I have to deal with these factors daily. But that track was not hard. Horses were getting hold of it good. Everybody wants a fast track on Derby Day--that doesn't mean we're going to do something harmful to the animal. That wouldn't benefit me, Churchill Downs, or anyone in this business."
Coincidence or not, though, the horses who raced fastest on the main track last Derby Day have had more than their share of problems. Love At Noon, the highly regarded filly who broke the 6 1/2-furlong Churchill record, cracked a splint bone doing it, and was never the same. She was retired this spring, having never won another race. Lake Pontchartrain, who won the second race last Derby Day, failed to finish his next race, which was his last. Alannan, the seven-furlong record-setter Derby Day, hasn't won since. Open Story, who dead-heated with City Street in the juvenile race that set the five-furlong mark, is 0-for-7 since. City Street hasn't raced again. Monarchos, winner of the Kentucky Derby (gr. I), never won again. He was retired with a crack in his right knee. His trainer, John T. Ward Jr., believes the injury occurred during the Derby.
Monarchos was credited with running the second-fastest Kentucky Derby of all time, behind only Secretariat. Now, I happen to like the connections of Monarchos. But if you think he is the second-best horse ever to run in the Kentucky Derby, I have some choice real estate in Utah that would be perfect for casino development.
The seven horses which won on dirt (including the dead-heaters) up to and including Monarchos last Derby Day have since won exactly one race among them (Dream Supreme). If you toss Point Given, who shut himself down early in the Derby, thus running the only off race of a brilliant 3-year-old campaign, the remaining 16 horses who ran in the Derby have combined to win seven races since.
So what happened last Derby Day? "I think the trackman is a knowledgeable guy," trainer Bob Baffert said. "He's trying to keep the surface as even as he can, and sometimes the only way to do that is to keep it on the fast side, and it just got away from him. It's a tough, thankless job. But that track was totally different than what we trained on leading up to the Derby. I think it affected a lot of horses down the line."
Let's get them around there safely, and good enough to come back and win another day. Lenny Shulman is The Blood-Horse features editor.