Wednesday, October 03, 2007

The Big Prep Debate

I'm seeing a lot of discussion over the Kentucky Cup Classic. Fans debating whether Hard Spun is or was simply better or if Nafzger intended to lose the race with Street Sense.

Some suggest that Street Sense was actually not the only one being prepped for the Classic, Hard Spun was as well.

I think it is beneficial first to understand what a "prep" race is. By definition it is a race used specifically by a trainer to gain some measure of schooling or fitness that he could not get from a workout that will prepare them specifically for a later engagement.

Just because the race directly precedes a big race does not mean it was a prep race for all the entrants. Lawyer Ron specifically was not prepping this last weekend, and from what I observed neither was Hard Spun. Both of the horses contested their respective races simply as the next stop in their campaign. They did not come into the race off of a time on the shelf nor were they looking for a new dimension of fitness or race education. They were fully ready for the races and I would not be expecting them to improve in their next race. Improvement was never the goal.

Not all trainers "prep" their horses in the traditional sense. Nafzger highlights key races then works backwards. After achieving a key objective he lets the horse down so that he can build them up fresh for the next challenge. Pletcher doesn't do that, typically he brings a horse off a layoff ready to run his best race then all his training is aimed at keeping the horse at his fitness peak. Jones from what I see is another campaigner, he is not characterized by letting his horses fitness down then building them back. He tries to get the horse to the highest level he can for as long as he can.

It is also worth noting that trainers have different ways of preparing a horse. A "prep" race can mean that the horse won't be pushed or if the horse is in need of a good stiff race because of a recent spell on the shelf the trainer might want the horse to go all out.

I think of Johar as a superb recent example of this. He won the San Marcos with a blistering performance in January but was then injured. For his comeback in August Mandella sent him to an 8.5f race. He was clearly just looking for a place to put him, he was not pushed very hard that day and was allowed to mostly finish on his own despite running third. Then in his next start he obviously decided that a good stiff test was necessary so he put him in a 10f race and sent him right from the start. Johar was a closer and going to the front early was never going to be a recipe for success but what they wanted was fitness for a horse who was lacking it. Johar dug in and only lost that race by a half length but he was surely pushed to the max that he was capable of on the day.

He then reverted back to his preferred style in the BC and we all know the rest. It was a master class clinic by Richard Mandella.

In one prep he wasn't really asked at all. They just wanted him to get a race under his belt. In the next race he was pushed to the max in order to gain as much fitness as possible. Both were prep races both had different objectives. Neither resulted in victory but together they did culminate in victory.

Trainers look for different things at different times in prep races but I think the constant is that the order of finish is not the primary concern. The objective is to give the horse some fitness or schooling that he wouldn't get from a workout.

I won't say that Nafzger intended to lose the race with Street Sense but I would say that he didn't care too much about the order of finish either before the race or after it. He had an alternate primary objective and by the sounds of it he achieved that objective.

1 comment:

alan said...

Agreed that the race was not a prep for Hard Spun. On the contrary, I think they were clearly trying to make a case for the horse to move on to the Classic instead of the Dirt Mile and Seventy Yards. I guess they have little to lose at this point; it's not like a mediocre performance will do much to decrease his stud value, and a good one could produce a huge upside.

On the other hand, Nafzger said before the race that he'd be happy to see Street Sense finish well. Considering that he was also taken completely out of his style - if he was going to race beyond Oct 27, I'd say they were giving him an education too - on a surface he may not love, I think he gained useful conditioning and should be well-prepared for the Classic.

Monarchos is my favorite example of a trainer using a prep to actually prep - perhaps because he's my last big Derby score. John Ward came right out in the papers and told everyone that the Wood was merely a tune-up for the Derby. His second to Congaree (as the favorite) not only set him up perfectly for the Derby, but created a 10-1 overlay as well.