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The 440

Date

Mon, Nov 5, 2018

The highest paid athlete ever to reside here raked in a pro-rated $1 million an hour while on the clock for less than nine minutes throughout an active three-year span. In exchange for electrifying exactly 510 ticks of the second hand, they paid Huntress Helena more than $134 k and dubbed her queen--of the quarter milers.

Contrary to amateur assumption, horses don't close, at least in the sense of gaining speed or momentum late. Thoroughbreds launching even dramatic stretch runs merely slow up at a slower rate than those in retreat. In fact, a racehorse can run just 3/8 of a mile at top speed. After that, lungs start to sear, painful infirmities curtail stride-length, and furlongs become light years.

 Unless somebody stops the race, which Mountaineer has made the inspired habit of doing since 2015. Along the way, the 440, in a sense as much as the WV Derby, has come to signify northern panhandle racing, resurrecting embalmed careers, lending sharp variety to the bland standard-menu of distances, and creating sexy new stars.

Beyond Huntress Helena, whose hippo-like hindquarters propelled her to a perhaps unequaled (among thoroughbreds) 18 quarter-mile wins, steeds like Appealing Yankee, often Alydar to the queen's Affirmed, Scarlet Emerald, whose four consecutive comprised a brief, but notable, reign recently overthrown by the breath-taking speed of fellow CT invader Cuttin Edge Tech, and the brilliant Roman Officer, winner of two straight Chairman's Cups, have each helped build these single-straightaway showdowns into local institutions.

Roman Officer, unquestionably the classiest runner to compete here at 440, and arguably the fastest, touched off the spiciest chapter in quarter-mile lore when his rider, Gerald Almodavar, as his mount took the measure of previously invincible Huntress Helena, had the temerity to openly taunt the queen. Almodavar incurred a fine for theatrically beckoning his beaten foe into a hole not even her legendary zip could quite catch up to. But he probably should have received a commendation for bringing emotion and showmanship to an often distant and aloof sport. It seems, however, that just like there's no crying in baseball, smack talk and swag have no place in horse racing. What a shame.

Bettors relish that sort of drama, but have more practical reasons to appreciate the 440. Chalk players, in particular, have found paradise in these mini-dashes, as favorites have taken 32 of 42 quarter-milers carded here in the modern era. (That's 76%, if you're keeping score.) And bridge jumpers (ever vigilante for opportunities here in one of the few jurisdictions that still pays a minimum 10% profit per winning deuce) once plunged $200k on such a race and have seen just one public choice miss 3rd.  And that was a tepid 3-1 favorite who had no previous experience at the distance and, in truth, attracted little interest in the show pool.

Sheer acceleration, the 440 thus proves, stands out as the most dependable of thoroughbred talents. And true specialists move even faster than the clock implies. That's because of a scrunched chute limiting the run-up to just one length, or so. Consequently, front-runners completely lacking quarter-mile quickness routinely shade 22 seconds given the much longer 32 -foot start standard in longer sprints, while Mountaineer's quarter-mile races generally require 22+.

Handicappers must distinguish between 'roll-up' speed common to early leaders at 5, 5 /1/2, or 6-furlongs, and that sudden burst able to cut it versus the quick of the quick. The break call tells a lot. Most chart callers don't catch the running order right from the gate, but instead wait a relative eternity for the field to settle in. And that means 4's and 5's, or even too many 2's and 3's, at the break call make a competitive start unlikely for 5 or 6-furlong speeds suddenly surrounded by spaghetti western gunslingers in the starting gate.

In addition to possessing that sudden first step, most 440 aces have bettered 22 seconds to a first call incorporating some bend. And they run straight as a bullet.

These attributes, of course, can't be taught or instilled, but no less an authority that Mike Baird, conditioner of both Huntress Helena and Scarlet Emerald, shares his method of maximizing natural speed. Surprisingly, the regimen doesn't differ much from the paces he puts non-speedballs through. " I don't change anything from a daily-exercise standpoint," said the 30%+ trainer. "My only tweak is adding one-furlong breezes, quick, short, no distance."

Physically, these races aren't demanding, according to Baird. But mentally, they can take a toll, he disclosed, hinting, perhaps, at an understanding of the thoroughbred psyche factoring into his uncanny success. " Huntress Helena doesn't stress at all. She could win two days in a row without batting an eyelash. But Scarlet Emerald lacks that mental toughness and needs recovery time."

Another trainer waxes nostalgic on the ancient flurry of 440's that, before a long hiatus, embedded the tradition some three decades ago. Richard Markham had his own method of prepping course-record holder ( :21 6/23/90) Promised Cruise for the dazzling spectacles now the stuff of urban legend here. "I kept him speed-happy," said the man who in another life lead the standings at old Commodore ( now Presque Isle) Downs. "Mainly walking and short works, lots of trips to the gate." When asked how his beloved ex-charge, still alive and pensioning in a girl's camp as of four years ago, might do against contemporary speed-merchants, he replied somewhat wistfully, but without hesitation. "He would have beaten them all." Then the 80 something's ragged voice trails off as he reflects, no doubt, on that treasured 21 forever etched in his mind.

 

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