Numbers crunch offers hunch for Preakness day


May 15, 1991|By JOHN EISENBERG

Horse racing does not easily lend itself to a paralyzing pile of statistics. There are wins and losses and percentages, but the numbers don't mean as much as in other sports. Only one number is truly essential: how much money you win. A racing Rotisserie League would be dreadfully dull. You draft Wayne Lukas, you win. Period.

Occasionally, though, a crunching of racing numbers proves worthwhile. I can't believe I'm admitting that -- me, the great anti-Rotisserian, the dart board dream of sabrematricians -- but it is true. Trying to make sense of the upcoming Preakness, I got out my record books and abacus and crunched for a while. It helped. Crunch, crunch, crunch. Yeah, it helped.

What got me started was the race's unusual angle: a probable duel between Strike the Gold, the Kentucky Derby winner, and Olympio, the Arkansas Derby winner, who did not run in Kentucky. Many among the cognoscenti are picking Olympio. Strike the Gold isn't exactly being discounted, but there is a mild rush to get off his cart.

There are, according to the word being passed, a couple of strikes against Strike the Gold. One is that Olympio is fresher, an undeniable truth. The other is that Strike the Gold is not a front-runner, and, so goes the legend, Pimlico is a fast track that makes life difficult for come-from-behinders.

Well. This is where the crunching began. I went to the record books to see if it is true Pimlico favors a different kind of horse than Churchill Downs. I went back to 1919, the year of the first Triple Crown winner, Sir Barton, and checked the results of Derby winners in the Preakness, up through last year.

This is what I found: 45 percent of the Derby winners who entered the Preakness (some did not run) won the Preakness. Another 20 percent finished second. So this is the news: almost two of every three Derby winners finished either first or second in the Preakness. That, friends, is a lot.

It doesn't mean we should dismiss entirely the notion that Pimlico and Churchill favor different horses. There is some difference. But clearly, too much is made of it. What these numbers demonstrate is that a horse who wins the Derby usually is talented enough to run well at any track, particularly Pimlico.

With these numbers making sweet, sweet sense in my head, I took my news to the backside yesterday and found someone who already knew. "Every year we hear about the speed and the tighter turns at Pimlico and all that," Wayne Lukas said, "but if you look it up, you see it isn't really true."

I knew that, of course. But anyway. So. The point is that, at least according to history, the chances are good, quite good, that Strike the Gold will run strong Saturday. Sure, he could still bomb: Derby winners have finished eighth, ninth, as low as 12th in the Preakness. But those jumping off his cart should be careful.

Incidently, should Olympio be the favorite, it would be far from the first time a Derby winner has been denied the Preakness chalk. Sunday Silence, Canonero II and Northern Dancer are among the Derby winners who failed to convince the Preakness crowd, then went out and won the race. (I have some cleverly crunched numbers here, but I don't want to show off.)

All of which brings us to Olympio, part of whose appeal, no doubt, is that he didn't lose the Derby. Most racing opinions are based not on what horses do, but what they don't do, and by skipping the Derby Olympio avoided sullying his reputation. That is what makes this an unusual Preakness. Usually, only one horse has an intact reputation.

But hey, Olympio is not a cardboard contender. He has won three straight races, five of eight in his life. In February he beat Dinard, whose injured leg probably kept him from being the Derby favorite. A check of his times is evidence enough that he is among the class of 1991.

Ron McAnally, Olympio's trainer, skipped the Derby because he thought the colt needed a rest. One would think that having skipped the Derby would help Saturday. "No race takes more out of a horse than the Derby," Lukas said. "They all leave something on the track there."

Yes. Well. The crunching begins again. I reopened my record books to count how many Preakness winners had skipped the tiring Derby. The answer: only 10 since 1930. So a few have pulled it off, but many more have tried and failed. For the vast majority of Preakness winners -- over 80 percent since 1930 -- a run in the Derby, however tiring, was the proper warm up.

Of course, there are notable and recent exceptions: Codex, Aloma's Ruler, Deputed Testamony and Gate Dancer all have pulled it off since 1980. It can be done with the proper horse. And Olympio could well be such a horse. We won't know until the race, however.

Apologies to those who expected a firm prediction, but it's still early in the week, and anyway, that's the way it goes. Crunching is good for hunching, but only that. As any good Rotisserian can tell you (usually in a nasally voice, not unlike The Lollipop Kids in "Wizard of Oz"): "It's not real life. It's just math."

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