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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 toughest handicap races in the world. The most “famous” bookmakers have rarely been able to pick a winner and in some years have been downright embarrassing.
Last year wasn’t bad, as the popular Street Sense won. But let’s go back to the time capsule for a better example. Two years ago in the 2006 Derby, Andy Beyer picked AP Warrior to win. AP Warrior ranked 18/20. Dan Illman of the Daily Racing Form staff picked Sweetnorthernsaint. Sweetnorthernsaint finished 7th at 20. Daily Racing Form’s Steven Crist also picked Sweetnorthernsaint. Your author chose Steppenwolfer from the clouds. Steppenwolfer only partially rose from the clouds and ranked 3/20. According to records, Barbaro won the Derby in 2006.
Why is this one race so hard to predict? Lord knows we know all the competitors intimately when the first Saturday in May rolls around. I’ve thought about it a lot and listed my top 10 reasons why the Kentucky Derby is the toughest handicap race in the world. Take a look and see if you agree.
Top 10 reasons why the Kentucky Derby is now the world’s toughest race to handicap
1. The field size has routinely swelled to a maximum of twenty, which is too many horses to squeeze into two laps and no major traffic jams are expected.
Twenty people are expected again this year. This means auxiliary gates, crowded turns meant for half the field, bumping and ground grinding, big tactical changes dictated after the draw, and constant starting, stopping and restarting. It’s enough to give you and your jockey a migraine.
2. These 3-year-olds are still young, and while we know them by now, they don’t have many lifelong starts.
Let’s list the 2007 starts, the 2008 starts and the total number of starts for several of this year’s competitors. For example Adriano 4-3-7 means 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 Blackjack 4-3-7
Colonel Johannes 4-2-6
Cool Coal Man 5-3-8
Cowboy Cal 3-3-6
Take back the glory 4-2-6
Ekat’s story 4-2-6
Z Fortune 2-4-6
The typical 2008 Kentucky Derby contender has three or fewer starts this year and about six total starts. A certain postseason favorite, Big Brown, has only three lives (two of them in 2008). There are very few races to watch. That’s the beauty and the challenge of leveling the Derby.
3. None of the Derby preps are contested over the Derby’s 1 1/4 miles.
A typical preparation for the Kentucky Derby is either 1 1/16 miles or 1 1/8 miles. The 1 1/16 mile prep covers 15% less ground than the Derby. The 1 1/8 mile prep is 10% shorter than the Derby. The missing 10% or 15% is where many races are won or lost. Think of it another way. If you add up all the races in the Total Races column of the table above, you get 77. Of those 77 races, none were run over the 1 ¼ mile distance of the Kentucky Derby.
4. With Derby prep running from coast to coast, many of these colts have never seen each other on the racetrack.
Early Derby favorite Big Brown faced (and beat) Smooth Air and Tomcito in the March 29 Florida Derby. That’s it for Big Brown. Big Brown has never competed against Pyro, Colonel John, Gayego, Z Fortune, Bob Black Jack or Monba. In the win at Gulfstream, the second of his three races, Big Brown handled a horse named Heaven’s Awesome. Heaven’s Awesome has just one win from nine starts. What should we learn from it? Not much!
Some other Derby contenders have met each other on the racetrack. Gayego beat Z Fortune in the Arkansas Derby. Pyro defeated Z Fortune in Risen Star. Cool Coal Man beat Recapturetheglory in the award at Churchill Downs. At least those races were on normal ground.
Challenger battles were also held with new synthetic songs. Colonel John beat Bob Black Jack in the Santa Anita Derby. Monba beat 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 are run on synthetic tracks? Not much! Polytrack’s performance simply doesn’t transfer to regular dirt. Cushion Track is a bit friendlier to compare with dirt (but I wouldn’t count on it).
5. Only a handful of competitors usually compete at Churchill Downs, the Derby’s perennial host track. And now that the Polytrack era is upon us, some horses are prepared exclusively for synthetic surfaces.
Let’s go back to our table of Kentucky Derby contenders. This time we look at races on the traditional ground and races on the main track at Churchill Downs. So Adriano 7-1-0 means 7 races total, 1 race on land and 0 races on the main track at Churchill Downs.
Behind the bar 5-1-0
Big Brown 3-2-0
Bob Blackjack 7-0-0
Col. John 6-0-0
Cool Coal Man 8-7-2
Cowboy Cal 6-1-0
Take back the glory 6-3-1
Ekat’s story 6-6-0
Z Fortune 6-5-0
A typical 2008 Kentucky Derby contender has six lifetime starts, and less than three of those starts were on regular ground. A typical Derby contender is lucky to get one race over the main track at Churchill Downs. There really isn’t much to go on. I blame it on Poly-Preps.
6. Back to the unruly field size, if a rider makes a small mistake, they can lose the race in the blink of an eye.
Calvin Borel was both smart and lucky in last year’s Kentucky Derby. Borel hugged Street Sense’s Churchill track 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 pounced from the gap at the top of the lane and ran Hard Spun down 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 out into the backstretch, where he stayed until he made a charge in the front of the stretch. Unfortunately, he was too late to make up all the lost places to the eventual winner (Winning Colors) and finished third. Two weeks later, in the Preakness Stakes, Risen Star won the fastest race since his sire Secretariat’s 1973 record time. Three weeks later, he displayed his genes, pulling away from the field to win by an incredible 15 lengths in the longest Triple Crown race, the grueling 1½-mile Belmont Stakes.
Was it because of Delahoussaye’s riding or the traffic caused by the other 16 horses in the race? We here in New Orleans suspect the role of Risen Star trainer (and former fairgrounds 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 rein in Risen Star early at all costs (fearing he would burn out chasing the colt Winning Colors). To my young eyes, it looked like Risen Star was the best horse in the Kentucky Derby and he simply ran out of ground. 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 Delahoussay.
7. Everyone (including the best beat handicappers in the competition) pays far too much attention to the media circus, losing track of the well-reasoned method of handicapping.
I don’t want to bash the media because they have a job to do and they do it well. But sometimes the media gives a horse too much ink just to raise the crap leading up to the race. That’s what happened in the 2008 Tampa Bay Derby. When you read about a horse like War Pass, you have to understand that he’s a fast horse, and sometimes fast horses don’t want to be hooked. Well, War Pass got hooked in the Tampa Bay Derby and his backers “got hooked” at odds of 1-20. The unexpected finish threw off many jumpers. The thing about the Tampa Bay Derby is that the race writers completely ignored two very strong colts (Big Truck and Atoned). With War Pass faltering, Big Truck and Atoned just ran their typical race and ended up one-two. Personally, I did not direct my readers to bet on the Tampa Bay Derby. I was very wary of the media hype and ignored it.
Well, the Kentucky Derby doesn’t need any hype. It’s the hype. The best strategy is to stick to the tried and true leveling 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 paid to the dose index of competitors. The Belmont Stakes is the only jewel in the Triple Crown where the Dosage Index really comes into play.
The processing industry has been sacrificing durability for speed for over twenty years. 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 just two preps. This year, Big Brown has only one prep and only three lifetime races. And no one raises an eyebrow. Last year, Street Sense only had two preparations before winning the Derby.
In 1977, the great Affirmed ran nine races as a 2-year-old, winning seven of them. Then in 1978, Affirmed had three preps (San Felipe, Santa Anita Derby and Hollywood Derby) before the Derby en route to a Triple Crown sweep. And just for the record, Affirmed won all three of his preps. Affirmed stayed healthy throughout his junior and sophomore campaigns and competed hard on dirt. Who needs Polytrack?
A good dosage index (lower is better than higher) usually indicates a pedigree that offers suitability for longer distances. Longer trips require stamina and fitness (and not necessarily speed). The Dosage Index is still used in the mile-and-a-half Belmont, but is not a real factor in the Kentucky Derby.
9. The oddsmakers have to make their selections before the weather reports are completely accurate, so a sloppy track can change everything.
Nobody picked Go For Gin to win the Kentucky Derby in 1994. But then the heavens opened (and the rains came down). Cormorant’s son Go for Gin was bred to love the off-track and just as advertised, he went on to confound the rest of the field with a win. Go For Gin paid $20.20 for a straight $2 winning ticket. Naturally, race writers have to meet deadlines. That’s why I give choices for both fast and off-track conditions, if the weather requires it.
10. There are twenty options, for God’s sake!
In a field of five horses, the average horse has a one in five chance of winning. It’s a 20% random chance to pick a winner. In a field of ten horses, the average horse has a one in ten chance of winning. That’s a 10% chance. Twenty options means the average horse has a one in twenty chance of winning. That’s a 5% chance. If none of the other nine reasons (including the top 10) make sense to you, the numbers game will succeed. It’s simple math, my friend.
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