Truth be told, many horseplayers are not necessarily true fans of Thoroughbred racing as a sport, and many fans of the sport are not horseplayers. But many of us are both, and sometimes that creates conflict. Saturday's events at Fair Grounds were a good example of how sometimes what is good for one group is not good for the other.
It became clear early on in the Fair Grounds card that there was a distinct bias at work on the main track. The bias first manifested itself in favor of inside speed horses, though I'm reluctant to include the term "speed." In many cases, what appears to be a bias in favor of speed horses is actually a bias in favor of the inside part of the given racing surface.
When speed horses clear, they tend to gravitate toward the rail, leaving closers pretty much no choice but to move outside to make their moves. Because those closers have moved away from the best footing to make unobstructed runs, their moves become ineffective, giving the often-false illusion that it is speed horses who have the edge.
This is how a bias that might appear to be in favor of speed horses is in actuality a bias in favor of inside runners. In my view, that was the bias that was in play Saturday on the main track at Fair Grounds. The inside was definitely the best part of the track, and by a wide margin.
For tuned-in horseplayers, true track biases can become our best friends. If you're reasonably proficient at projecting how a race will unfold, and have a sense of which jockeys are aware of the situation and which are oblivious to what's going on, true bias days can become big money-making opportunities. In fact, I would bet a large portion of horseplayers would admit that many of their best days came when they latched on to a bias.
But fans of the sport loathe track biases on important race days, and for an excellent reason. Who wants the outcome of important races to be determined by anything other than the abilities of the horses involved?
Unfortunately, the outcome of Risen Star, and the other main track stakes Saturday at Fair Grounds, was greatly affected by the strong inside bias.
Gun Runner won the Risen Star by a half-length over Forevamo. It was a length farther back to third-place finisher Mo Tom (more about him in a moment), with Candy My Boy another three quarters of a length back in fourth. So you had just 2-1/4 lengths between the first and fourth finishers (which included the second and third choices in the betting in Mo Tom and Gun Runner, and two huge longshots), with a 7-1/2- length bulge back to the next closest finisher.
What is striking about the top four finishers in the Risen Star who separated themselves so much from the rest of the field - or not at all striking if you were paying attention to what was going on -- is all four of them spent virtually the entire Risen Star racing either on the rail or in the two path.
Now, I'm not going to make any excuses for any in the beaten field in the Risen Star who for one reason or another were bogged down in the deeper going outside. But I will say that those who raced outside lost whatever chance they had.
However, it is hard not to make an excuse for Mo Tom, who was stopped badly by an erratic Bistraya in upper stretch, yet somehow regained his momentum and finished fast. You can argue all day about the risks run by horses like Mo Tom, who fall so far back early. It's a valid debate, and I tend to shy away from such horses because of the trouble they inevitably find. But Mo Tom was an unlucky loser of the Risen Star, and he is better than I first gave him credit.
As for Gun Runner, so many people were taking bows after the Risen Star for picking him that I'm surprised he didn't pay $5.20 instead of $12.20. Gun Runner deserves at least some credit for winning in his first start in three months to improve his record to 3 for 4, and it shouldn't surprise anyone if he improves from here. But he will have to. Gun Runner did all of his running on the best part of the track, and his preliminary Beyer Figure of 90 suggests the Risen Star wasn't the most strongly run Kentucky Derby prep we've seen so far this year.
The Mineshaft earlier in the card was the race that really raised the bias alert at Fair Grounds. Majestic Harbor prevailed in front-running fashion as the longest shot in the field of four, and while he was away from the rail down the backstretch, he was on the inside on the turns. Eagle, who was wide throughout and missed by a head, was an unlucky loser.
Cinco Charlie was poised for a step forward in the Duncan F. Kenner, but when he also controlled the pace from the inside, it was game over.
Venus Valentine was the most implausible of winners at 74-1 in the Rachel Alexandra, but it should be noted that she was on or near the rail every step of the way, and came charging up a rail through the stretch that was inexplicably vacant. And while there are no trip horses in slowly run races -- the Rachel Alexandra received a preliminary Beyer of only 77 -- runner-up Midnight On Oconee was wide throughout.