The Kentucky Derby isn’t won by wishful thinking, fond hopes, or crazy luck. Occasionally the superior horse is beaten in the Derby — as when Bimelech lost to Gallahadion. But, generally, the Kentucky Derby winner goes on from there to demonstrate still further his real greatness.
— Colonel Matt J. Winn
The Kentucky Derby isn’t America’s oldest or richest race, but it is the race, more than any other on the American racing calendar, that everyone involved in the game wants to win. For trainers and owners, prestige comes with a Derby victory. No less comes to a bettor who picks the winner — especially a longshot winner. But don’t take that to mean you should hunt for a double-digit payoff, overlooking the obvious or the favored. As Colonel Matt J. Winn — the early 20th century Churchill Downs president credited with making the Kentucky Derby what it is today — knew well, to the best horse usually goes the roses.
The trick, of course, is figuring out who’s the best horse in a full field of 20 on the first Saturday in May. That’s not so easy — with 139 years of history to draw on and an intensive prep season, Kentucky Derby angles abound. Historical rules, pedigree insights, training trends, speed figures — there’s a way to make a case for almost every 3-year-old entered.
In 2009, Mine That Bird was a lightly regarded starter, an unknown from New Mexico with little in his past performances to suggest the Birdstone gelding was capable of an upset at 50-1. And yet, Mine That Bird, unlikely as he was, possessed a few qualities of Derby winners past. One such was that, like all but two of the 20 entered in 2009, Mine That Bird had raced as a 2-year-old (he raced so well as a 2-year-old that he was named Canada’s juvenile champion). No horse has won the Kentucky Derby without starting as a juvenile since Apollo in 1882, a fact transformed into a Derby handicapping “rule” over the years, and one of several historical guidelines based on what has (and hasn’t) been accomplished by previous Derby winners.
History, though, isn’t absolute, and the long-arcing trends that seemed verities even five years ago seem less certain today. Until 2006, a layoff of more than four weeks was considered suspect. Barbaro won that year off a five-week layoff, the first horse since Needles in 1956 to do so. In 2007, Street Sense broke the “juvenile jinx,” becoming the first Breeders’ Cup winner to win the Derby. In 2008, Big Brown won off three career starts, one two-turn prep race, and from post 20 in the starting gate, smashing several rules in one tour de force performance.
But that history’s rules are broken every year doesn’t mean precedent should be disregarded. Handicapping is about assessing probability, after all, and the more exceptional a horse must be to win, the less likely it is to do so. Pay attention to where history intersects with common sense and solid handicapping: The Derby is extreme test of fitness and readiness, requiring speed, class, and experience to win. Look for well-prepped horses who have missed no training time, and heed the gaps in a career record. Big Brown aside, adequate experience — defined as at least five career starts — is a plus for meeting the challenge of the Derby. And despite what Mine That Bird in 2009 or Giacomo in 2005 accomplished, a likely Derby winner will be proven at nine furlongs, finishing at least third (or within three lengths of the winner) at the distance as a 3-year-old.
Other factors frequently referred to when talking about Derby handicapping include:
Dosage, Experimental Free Weights, and Dual Qualifiers
A somewhat esoteric pedigree theory, Dosage in the Derby draws ardent supporters or dismissive debunkers. Based on the frequency of certain sires in a horse’s bloodline, Dosage indicates a horse’s distance potential. Broadly speaking, the lower the Dosage Index number, which is derived from the Dosage Profile, the more stamina a horse is considered to possess. Dosage is used in conjunction with the Experimental Free Handicap rankings to determine Dual Qualifiers, horses that rank within 10 pounds of the Experimental top weight and have a Dosage Index number less than 4.00. Through the 1990s, Dual Qualifiers ruled the Kentucky Derby; the theory has taken hits in the past decade, with only 2007 winner Street Sense meeting both requirements.
Tomlinson Distance Ratings
Calculated by analyzing pedigree influences, revised quarterly, and keyed to the distance of the race, Tomlinson Distance Ratings indicate the the distance potential of each horse’s breeding. A rating of 320 is considered average; ratings above 320 suggest a horse may excel at the Derby’s 10-furlong distance. Since 1998, six winners have had Tomlinson Distance Ratings better than 320: I’ll Have Another, 2012; Animal Kingdom, 2011; Barbaro, 2006; War Emblem, 2002; Fusaichi Pegasus, 2000; and Charismatic, 1999.
Horses that can come home fast have an edge in the Derby. Of the past 20 Derby winners, 15 demonstrated their late speed by running the final three-eighths of their final 1 1/8 mile prep in less than :38 seconds. In 2009, every starter ran the final three-eighths of their final nine-furlong prep in less than :38 seconds, rendering this angle meaningless. In 2011, however, several starters — including Florida Derby winner Dialed In — did not manage a time better than :38 for the final three-eighths at the distance, making fractions part of the handicapping puzzle once again.
When the prep races are over, workouts remain. The moves Derby contenders make in the days leading to the Derby are closely scrutinized for evidence that a horse is in peak form, and — if it’s training at Churchill Downs — proof that it is taking to the main track surface. A bullet work at Churchill — meaning the horse’s time was the fastest at the distance that morning — has become a meaningful bit of data in recent years, with eight of the last 12 Derby winners posting an exceptional final work before the race. Not that a bullet work is essential — what you’re looking for is a work and time that is characteristic of the horse. A Derby contender should look no worse training than it has through the prep season; it’s a bonus if the horse appears to be doing better.
Beyer speed figures
It used to be that when it came to the Kentucky Derby, a horse that earned a Beyer of 100+ in a prep race signaled it was one to watch. Before 2009, only Giacomo was among recent Derby winners to have not run a triple-digit Beyer in a prep race, and he was the beneficiary of a pace situation favorable to deep closers in 2005. Since Mine That Bird in 2009, not a single Derby winner has earned a triple-digit Beyer in their career before the first Saturday in May. Still, Beyer speed figures can be useful. Derby winners, and horses who finish in the money, almost always earn their best Beyers at distances of 1 1/16 mile or more. Be wary of horses who have earned their best speed figures at a mile or less, or who have not surpassed their top 2-year-old Beyer as a 3-year-old.
Part of the fun of handicapping the Kentucky Derby is the awesome potential for geeking out on stats, which just might lead you to the winner. HRTV analyst Jon White looks for Derby contenders without “strikes.” In his system, nine factors are used to separate playable from bet-against horses. Kennedy, of the Kennedy’s Corridor blog, devised and refined a Derby 20/20 scheme, which relies heavily on speed figures (he explains his work in three parts: 1, 2, 3). I maintain a spreadsheet, updated annually, applying various historical criteria to each year’s field (note: this year’s updates will happen after the field for the 2014 Derby has been drawn).
To get started on your own Kentucky Derby handicapping, you can find past performances and results charts from previous years in the Daily Racing Form Derby section, as well as Derby final times and fractions. The official Kentucky Derby site also has a wealth of information, including charts for every Derby run.
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