MIAMI -- Since its inception in 2001, Calder's innovative Summit of Speed has lured some of the world's fastest horses to south Florida to compete in a daylong festival of sprint races. And in its relatively short history, the Summit of Speed already sports an impressive roster of participants that includes Eclipse Award champions Orientate, Lost in the Fog, and Xtra Heat as well as the 2003 Breeders' Cup Sprint winner Cajun Beat.
But for handicapping purposes, horseplayers might consider a different history, one that indicates speed is more of a liability than an asset, when assessing the fields that will compete in the four graded stakes races that highlight this year's Summit of Speed.
Unlike many venues, which tend to turn their racetracks into paved highways on big days, often frustrating patrons with a blatantly speed-biased strip, Calder has not fallen into that trap. In fact, the prevailing trend most years on Summit of Speed Day has been for front-runners to struggle - no more so than last summer, when the racetrack seemed biased against horses on the lead and those racing anywhere close to the inside rail.
A closer look at the four graded stakes on the 2006 Summit card offers ample proof of that theory.
Victorina raced near the rear of the pack during the opening quarter-mile of the Grade 3 Azalea, rallied three wide into the stretch, and won going away. Frolicing crossed the line second despite bearing out badly around the final turn and finishing out past the crown of the racetrack. She was disqualified and placed third behind G City Gal, who also finished well out in the middle of the track after being impeded by Frolicinig.
Jockey Edgar Prado wisely kept the speedy Too Much Bling well off the rail and off the early lead in the Grade 2 Carry Back, a strategy that helped him wear down the local standout Mach Ride. Mach Ride suffered his first loss in five career starts that day but earned a considerable amount of respect from bias-wary handicappers. He contested the pace from along the inside and gave Too Much Bling, the favorite, all he could handle before succumbing to the deeper going near the fence.
The Grade 2 Smile and Grade 1 Princess Rooney were both won by outsiders who rode the crest of the biased racetrack to easy victories. In the Smile, the late-running Nightmare Affair finished full of run from the outside to defeat Pomeroy and Weigelia. Kelly's Landing, who went on to win the 2007 Dubai Golden Shaheen, and the pace-setting Joey P. bogged down through the stretch while on the rail and were off the board.
The top three finishers in the Smile went postward at odds of 14-1, 11-1 and 13-1.
The Princess Rooney featured an appearance by the 1-5 Dubai Escapade, who had used her blinding speed to capture her previous four starts by an average margin of nearly five lengths. But against the grain of the biased racetrack, Dubai Escapade had nothing left once turning for home in a race won by the 23-1 Malibu Mint, who fanned out near the middle of the track while launching her rally. Prospective Saint also raced wide and rallied to finish second at odds of 13-1. Dubai Escapade staggered home sixth, nearly 10 lengths behind Malibu Mint.
While the results of last year's Summit were perhaps a bit of an aberration and obviously affected by the track bias, a closer look at the five previous renewals of the event offers enough evidence to confirm that pure speed isn't necessarily a direct path to the winner's circle on Summit Day. There were a handful of front-running winners in the four graded stakes during those five years, and that short list includes some of the premier sprinters of their generation: Eclipse Award winners Orientate in the 2002 Smile and Lost in the Fog in the 2005 Carry Back, and Madcap Escapade in the 2005 Princess Rooney.
But by and large the Summit of Speed winner's circle has been filled with horses who used a similar modus operandi: rating just off the pace before striking swiftly with a three- or four-wide move into the stretch.
In the inaugural edition in 2001, for instance, the Smile, Princess Rooney and Azalea were all won from off the pace, by Fappie's Notebook, Dream Supreme, and Hattiesburg, respectively. Orientate's wire-to-wire win in the 2002 Smile was preceeded by wins by Royal Lad in the Carry Back, Bold World in the Azalea, and Gold Mover in the Princess Rooney, each of whom rallied "three wide into the stretch," according to the official chart footnotes.
Gold Mover registered her victory at the direct expense of reigning Eclipse Award winner and 2-5 favorite Xtra Heat, who could not hold a seemingly insurmountable two-length lead at the eighth pole.
Gold Mover returned the following summer and used similar stalking tactics to win her second straight Princess Rooney, while Shake You Down also rallied from just off the pace to capture the Smile. Ebony Breeze stalked and collared local speedball Storm Flag to capture the Azalea in 2003, while Valid Video rallied three wide from mid-pack to defeat future Breeders' Cup Sprint hero Cajun Beat in the Carry Back.
Weigelia and Ema Bovary used similar strategies to capture the 2004 Carry Back and Princess Rooney, while Woke Up Dreamin followed the same well worn path to victory here the following summer in the Smile.
The weather in south Florida at this time of season can greatly affect the racing surface at Calder, often changing from minute to minute let alone day to day, and it remains to be seen just what type of track will greet this year's Summit of Speed contenders on Saturday. But if history is any indication - and barring any blatant speed bias - it will take a very special horse to win any of the big four races from gate to wire.