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Top 10 Reasons the Kentucky Derby is the Hardest Race to Handicap
The Kentucky Derby has quickly become one of the most difficult races in the world to handicap. The “best known” handicappers could rarely pick the winner, and downright embarrassed themselves in some years.
Last year wasn’t too bad as popular favorite Street Sense triumphed. But let’s go back in the time capsule for a better example. Two years ago in the 2006 Derby, Andy Beyer picked AP Warrior to win. AP Warrior finished 18th out of 20. Dan Illman of the Daily Racing Form staff picked Sweetnorthernsaint. Sweetnorthernsaint finished 7th out of 20. Steven Crist of the Daily Race Form also picked Sweetnorthernsaint. Your author chose Steppenwolfer to come from the clouds. Steppenwolfer only partially came out of the clouds and finished third out of 20. For the record, Barbaro was the Derby winner in 2006.
Why is this race so hard to predict? Lord knows we feel like we know all the competitors intimately when the first Saturday in May rolls around. I’ve given it a lot of thought and listed my own 10 reasons why the Kentucky Derby is the hardest race in the world to handicap. Take a look and see if you agree.
The Top 10 Reasons Why The Kentucky Derby Is Now The Toughest Handicap Race In The World
1. Field size routinely swelled to a maximum of twenty, and that’s too many horses to squeeze into two turns and not wait for a major traffic jam.
This year a full field of twenty is expected yet again. That means auxiliary gates, rallying at turns meant for a field half the size, jostling and grinding for position, major changes in tactics dictated by post position draw, and continuous start and stop and restart momentum. It’s enough to give you and your jockey a migraine.
2. These 3-year-olds are still young, and even though we feel like we already know them, they don’t have many beginnings in life.
For several of this year’s contenders, let’s list the starts in 2007, the starts in 2008, and the total starts. For example, Adriano 4-3-7 indicates 4 races in 2007, 3 races in 2008, and 7 races in total.
Behind the bar 0-5-5
Big Brown 1-2-3
Bob Black Jack 4-3-7
Colonel John 4-2-6
Cool Coalman 5-3-8
Cowboy Cal 3-3-6
Recapture the 4-2-6 glory
Story Of Ekati 4-2-6
Z Fortune 2-4-6
The typical Kentucky Derby 2008 contender has three starts or less this year and about six starts overall. The sure late favorite Big Brown has only three lifetime starts (two of them in 2008). There are very few races to watch. That is the beauty and challenge of handicapping the Derby.
3. None of the Derby preps are contested at the Derby 1 1/4 mile distance.
A typical Kentucky Derby prep is either 1 1/16 miles or 1 1/8 miles. The 1 1/16 mile preparation covers 15% less ground than the Derby. The 1 1/8 mile prep is 10% shorter than the Derby. That missing 10% or 15% is where many races are won or lost. Think about it differently. If you add up all the races in the Total Races column in the table above, you get 77. Of those 77 races, none were run at the Kentucky Derby distance of 1 ¼ miles.
4. The Derby preps run coast to coast, so many of these colts have never laid eyes on each other on the racetrack.
Early Derby favorite Big Brown faced (and beat) Smooth Air and Tomcito in the Florida Derby on March 29. That’s it for Big Brown. Big Brown never raced against Pyro, Colonel John, Gayego, Z Fortune, Bob Black Jack or Monba. In a purse win at Gulfstream, the second of his three races, Big Brown mishandled a horse named Heaven’s Awesome. Heaven’s Awesome has just one win in nine starts. What should we learn from this? Not much!
Some of the other Derby contenders ran into each other on the racetrack. Gayego beat Z Fortune in the Arkansas Derby. Pyro defeated Z Fortune in the Rising Star. Cool Coal Man beat Recapturetheglory in allowance at Churchill Downs. At least those races were on conventional dirt.
There were also contender battles on the newfangled synthetic tracks. Colonel John defeated Bob Black Jack in the Santa Anita Derby. Monba defeated Cowboy Cal, Pyro and Cool Coal Man in the Blue Grass. And what should we learn from the Santa Anita Derby and the Blue Grass, both of which run on synthetic tracks? Not much! Polytrack performance simply does not transfer to conventional dirt. Cushion Track is a bit friendlier to dirt comparisons (but I wouldn’t rely on it).
5. Only a handful of the contenders normally have a race over the Churchill Downs course, the perennial host for the Derby. And now that the Polytrack era is upon us, some horses have trained exclusively on synthetic surfaces.
Let’s revisit our table of Kentucky Derby contenders. This time we will look at races on conventional dirt and races on the main Churchill Downs track. So Adriano 7-1-0 indicates 7 total races, 1 race on dirt, and 0 races on the main track of Churchill Downs.
Behind the bar 5-1-0
Big Brown 3-2-0
Bob Black Jack 7-0-0
Colonel John 6-0-0
Cool Coalman 8-7-2
Cowboy Cal 6-1-0
Recapture the 6-3-1 glory
Story Of Ekati 6-6-0
Z Fortune 6-5-0
The typical 2008 Kentucky Derby contender has six lifetime starts, and less than three of those starts have been on conventional dirt. The typical Derby contender is lucky to have one race over the Churchill Downs main course. That’s really not much to go on. I blame it on the Poly-Preps.
6. Back to the uncontrollable field size, if a jockey makes a minor mistake, he can lose the race in the blink of an eye.
Calvin Borel was both smart and lucky in last year’s Kentucky Derby. Borel embraced the Churchill rail on Street Sense like his life depended on it. And just when he needed it, the seas seemed to part for Calvin Borel. The duo of Street Sense and Borel charged through an opening at the top of the lane and ran down Hard Spun in a picture perfect finish.
It doesn’t always work like a Hollywood movie. In 1988 there should have been a Triple Crown winner and his name was Risen Star. In the Kentucky Derby that year, under jockey Eddie Delahoussaye, Risen Star was forced to the outside on the backstretch where he remained until making a charge at the head of the stretch. Unfortunately, he arrived too late to make up all the ground lost to the eventual winner (the filly Winning Colors) and finished third. Two weeks later in the Preakness Stakes Risen Star won the fastest race since the 1973 record time of his father Secretariat. Three weeks later, he showed his genes, pulling away from the field and winning by an amazing 15 lengths in the longest of the Triple Crown races, the grueling 1½ mile Belmont Stakes.
Was Delahoussaye’s ride to blame or was it the traffic created by the other 16 horses in the race? We here in New Orleans are suspicious of the role of Risen Star trainer (and former Fair Grounds owner) Louis J. Roussel III. Roussel has always been a bit of a demagogue and it was heavily rumored that he gave Delahoussaye strict instructions to keep Risen Star early at all costs (for fear of being burned chasing the filly Winning Colors). To my young eyes, it looked like Risen Star was by far the best horse in the Kentucky Derby and he just ran out. We’ll never know what really happened, but there’s one thing you can count on. A jockey can lose the Derby in the blink of an eye. Just ask Eddie Delahoussaye.
7. Everyone (including the best of the race stroke handicappers) pays far too much attention to the media circus, losing track of well-grounded handicapping methodology.
I don’t want to pin the media, after all they have a job to do and they do it well. But sometimes the media gives too much ink to a horse just to build a frenzy leading up to the race. Such was the case in the 2008 Tampa Bay Derby. When you read about a horse like War Pass, you have to understand that he is a fast horse, and speed horses sometimes don’t like to be hooked. Well, War Pass hooked into the Tampa Bay Derby and his supporters “hooked” to the tune of 1-to-20 odds. The unexpected extraordinary finish sent many jumpers to an early demise. The thing about the Tampa Bay Derby is that racers completely ignored two strong colts (Big Truck and Atoned). While War Pass faltered, Big Truck and Atoned simply ran their typical race and finished one-two. Personally, I did not guide my readers to bet on the Tampa Bay Derby. I was very concerned about the media and I ignored it.
Well, the Kentucky Derby doesn’t need any hype. It’s the hype. The best strategy is to stick to a tried and true disability philosophy. Stick to your guns, no matter what the TV pundits say (I wouldn’t pay too much attention to Hank Goldberg and his piggy bank).
8. Far too much attention is devoted to the Dose Index of the contenders. The Belmont Stakes is the only jewel of the Triple Crown where the Dose Index really comes into play.
The breeding industry has been sacrificing endurance for speed for over twenty years now. As a result, horses don’t hold up as well during the Kentucky Derby prep season. It used to be unheard of for a Derby contender to have only two preps. This year Big Brown has only a single preparation and he has only three lifetime races. And no one raises an eyebrow. Last year Street Sense had only two preparations before winning the Derby.
Back in 1977, the great Affirmation had nine races as a 2-year-old, seven of which he won. Then in 1978 Affirmed had three preparations (the San Felipe, Santa Anita Derby and Hollywood Derby) before the Derby on his way to the Triple Crown sweep. And just for the record, Affirmed won all three of its preps. Affirmed remained solid throughout his junior and sophomore campaigns, racing strictly on dirt. Who needs Polytrack?
A good Dose Index (lower is better than higher) generally indicates a pedigree that provides capability for longer distances. Longer distances require stamina and fitness (and not necessarily speed). Dose Index is still in play for the mile and a half Belmont, but it’s not really a factor in the Kentucky Derby.
9. Race handicappers have to make their selections before the weather reports are fully accurate, so a sloppy track can change everything.
No one picked Go For Gin to win the Kentucky Derby in 1994. But then the heavens opened (and the rains fell). A son of Cormorant, Go for Gin was bred to love off-roading, and exactly as advertised he went on to embarrass the rest of the field with a head-to-head win. Go For Gin paid $20.20 for a $2 straight win ticket. Of course race writers have to meet deadlines. That’s why I give options for both fast and off-road conditions if the weather permits.
10. There are twenty choices, for God’s sake!
In a five horse field, an average horse has a one in five chance of winning. That’s a 20% random chance you have of picking the winner. In a ten horse field, an average horse has a one in ten chance of winning. That’s a 10% chance. Twenty picks means an average horse has a one in twenty chance of winning. That’s a 5% chance. If none of the other nine reasons (in the top 10) get you, the numbers game will. It’s simple math, my friend.
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