WASHINGTON — Horse racing's biggest upset of the year must have seemed utterly inexplicable to fans around the country who watched it via simulcast or read about it. Few would have even recognized the name of Free Spirit's Joy, who ran away from some of the nation's best 3-year-olds in the $1 million Super Derby.
The ex-claiming horse won by 2 1/2 lengths over Olympio and trounced big-name rivals Lite Light, the highly acclaimed filly, and Best Pal, who had seemingly blossomed into the best horse of his generation. The result seemed to defy all logic.
But people who were at Louisiana Downs Sunday, and others familiar with the idiosyncrasies of that race track, know that there was no mystery to this upset. Louisiana Downs has become what Pimlico used to be: the most freakishly biased racing strip in America.
Marylanders will remember the years when the rail at Pimlico was an insuperable advantage; almost any horse who popped out of the gate and got in front along the inside could cruise to victory -- regardless of ability or lack thereof. There were times when nine races a day would be won by the horse who hugged the rail, and there were Preaknesses that were decided solely by the bias. Louisiana Downs frequently develops the same tendencies, and early on Sunday's program jockey Calvin Borel recognized that this was one of those days.
Borel was riding a colt named Moving Colors, who broke from Post Position 1, dueled for the lead inside the odds-on favorite and began to drop back as though he were going to be beaten soundly. But he stayed on the rail, accelerated past the rival who had seemingly put him away and drew clear to a comfortable victory. Borel had no trouble recognizing the implications of this result.
Later in the day, Borel was on Free Spirit's Joy, who seemed totally outclassed in the Super Derby field. The obscurely bred colt had raced for a $25,000 claiming tag as recently as April and never won a stakes until three weeks ago, when his victory in the Prelude Stakes gave him an automatic, free berth in the Super Derby field. Trainer Clarence Picou is a realist, and he probably wouldn't have considered this race if he had to post the $12,500 fee needed to start. But, he said, "the horse had been improving and if he made any more improvement I thought we might have an outside chance."
The bias made that outside chance a bit better. Before the race, Picou huddled with Borel. The trainer said: "I suggested to the rider that the only other horse in the race with speed was Olympio (who was breaking from a post position inside Free Spirit's Joy). My horse loves to be on the inside. So I told him if he got a decent break, try to outrun Olympio and go to the rail."
Free Spirit's Joy isn't a speed horse by nature -- he customarily sits several lengths behind the early leaders -- but Borel was ready to try aggressive strategy. He had nothing to lose. By contrast, Olympio was a strong contender, and jockey Eddie Delahoussaye wasn't going to go on a kamikaze mission to keep a hopeless 28-to-1 shot from getting the lead.
So Borel blasted out of the gate and shot to the rail in a few strides, grabbing the vital inside position from Olympio, and then tried to slow down the pace. But Delahoussaye wouldn't let him get away with that, and so he sent Olympio outside Free Spirit's Joy and put the speedster in his accustomed front-running position by the time he reached the turn. He opened a clear lead on the backstretch -- but he never bothered to drop back to the rail. Surely there was no need to worry about his tactical position relative to Free Spirit's Joy; he was concerned with the 4-to-5 favorite Best Pal, who was lurking behind the top two.
Delahoussaye miscalculated. Propelled by the bias, Free Spirit's Joy shot back inside Olympio, battled with him around the turn, and started to draw away. And the other contenders -- who had been on the outside all the way -- began to look as if they were running on a treadmill.
Biases don't get much stronger than this, and the outcome of the Super Derby was utterly fluky, utterly meaningless as an honest test of the horses' ability. But Picou and Borel should feel no embarrassment about collecting their share of the $1 million purse. They were alert and bold enough to observe the Louisiana Downs bias and to capitalize on it when none of their more illustrious rivals did.