Handicapping The Florida Derby

Handicapping the preps: The Florida Derby

"Bill Clinton will lose to any Republican who doesn't drool on stage." -- The Wall Street Journal, Oct. 30, 1995.

Some situations demand epistemological modesty, and handicapping the Florida Derby is one of them. (Actually, since any situation involves many complexities that cannot be apprehended initially, we rarely know quite as much as we'd like to think we know; and so when it comes to predicting what's going to happen, epistemological modesty is almost always wise, and certainty almost always dumb.) The problem in handicapping the Florida Derby is that no horse in the field has proven he can do what he's going to have to do Sunday to win. And so handicapping involves conjecture, which, it may be worth pointing out, originally meant the interpretation of omens.

Soldat either will have to run much faster early if he's going to control the pace, or he's going to have to come from off the pace if he's going to win for the third time this Gulfstream Park season. To Honor And Serve will probably be farther off the pace, too, and he obviously will have to finish much more strongly than he did in the Fountain of Youth or, in fact, in any of his races. Arch Traveler, Bowman's Causeway and Shackleford will, quite simply, have to run several lengths faster if they're going to win or even threaten. Stay Thirsty, who prefers to stalk, either will have to expend more energy to stay close to the lead early, in stalking position, or he'll have to rally from farther back. In only his second start around two turns, Dialed In will find himself farther behind than he was in his two-turn debut, and he'll have to rally more effectively. And Flashpoint -- well, he only has to carry his speed a quarter-mile farther than ever before. Nobody has proven he's capable of doing what Sunday's circumstances will ask of him. Demand of him.

It's a little like handicapping the Kentucky Derby, where you have to ask yourself who's capable of success at 10 furlongs, a distance nobody in the field ever has attempted. When you analyzed the Super Bowl, you didn't have to wonder if the Packers or the Steelers could succeed over 60 minutes of football or if Aaron Rodgers and Big Ben could throw for touchdowns; both teams and both quarterbacks already had done so, on several occasions. Nor did you have to wonder if the Rangers or the Giants could score enough runs in nine innings to win a ballgame. But to handicap the Kentucky Derby, or in this case the Florida Derby, you have to embrace the unknown, give it a peck on the cheek and then hope it doesn't bite your nose off.

Looking at these horses in the Florida Derby, I'm reminded of Dan Gardner's new book, Future Babble: Why Expert Predictions Are Next To Worthless, and You Can Do Better. This area of expert ineptitude has been mined many times before, of course, most notably by Philip Tetlock in his scholarly Expert Political Judgment and, more amusingly, in The Experts Speak, by Christopher Cerf and Victor Navasky. These books make the point that predicting the future is always risky and often impossible, and they have a democratic undertow that pulls down expertise beneath the most common sense. And they're not even talking about horse racing expertise, which, frankly, trends toward the specious.

Expertise, whether based on mathematical models or science or research or observation, frequently fails so miserably to predict the future because, these books point out, it's often coupled with epistemolgical arrogance, with a confident knowledge that insists on its preeminence in the informational hierarchy, as in, I'm certain about what I know, and what I know is the most important knowledge to have. Well, maybe not. Experts are generally hesitant to say, "I don't know." Or, "Here's what I know, but there's so much more to know about this."

Handicappers tend to emphasize speed figures, or pace figures, or class, or form cycles, or trainer angles, or some ecclectic combination of everything, but even then they might overlook the nugget of information that on this day under these circumstances is most important, vital. Anyway, there's so much more to know about this Florida Derby than anybody can possibly know, but that's what makes for an especially intriguing race, one that's particularly uncertain and unpredictable, but one that could present a terrific betting opportunity. Arch Traveler is the only horse in the field whose victory would shock me, and if he were 99-1 -- he won't be -- I'd probably toss two bucks his way just because every horse is betable at the right price.

The circumstances of the Florida Derby will probably be least intimidating for Dialed In. He'll probably have to rally from far back, but, of course, he did that in the Holy Bull, rallying from last to win. And he has run this distance. The difference here, of course, is the combination of distance and finding himself far back, probably 10, maybe more, lengths behind after a half-mile. In his last outing, which was clearly educational, his first try around two turns, he was never farther back than four lengths. Eager to run on the backstretch, he was restrained behind a dawdling pace (49.40 for the opening half-mile, 1:13.89 for three-quarters), but finished with good energy, running the final three furlongs in 36.93. Given the soporific fractions, I might have epected him to finish more strongly, but he had to deal with some traffic, and this was, after all, his first race around two turns. And he did gallop out well beyond the winner, Equestrio.

The key to the Florida Derby, though, will be Flashpoint, the unbeaten Hutcheson winner. He probably won't win, but he could determine the winner. He's fast enough to open up a 10-length advantage here. But, of course, Velasquez will try to conserve some energy, save something for that extra quarter-mile the swift colt will have to run. And so how fast will Flashpoint go? More important, how close will Soldat be and how fast can he comfortably run and still finish strongly? Bundled up and packaged, the answers to those questions represent the most important information we don't have, can't possibly have.

Soldat had everything his own way while winning his last two, including the Fountain of Youth. The pace in each was modest (47.99 and 48.29), and the surface kind. But what's his optimum cruising speed? In workouts, he has been positioned behind horses, but will Soldat be comforable if he has only one horse speeding along in front of him, or will he insist on challenging? And how fast can Soldat go early and still finish effectively?

The most likely scenario is that Flashpoint speeds to the lead, followed by Soldat and To Honor And Serve, possibly with Arch Traveler or Bowman's Causeway or even Stay Thirsty, and that he forces those close to him to run a little faster than they like, faster than is comfortable. Soldat, for example, will probably have to run four or five lengths faster for the opening half-mile than he did in the Fountain of Youth if he's going to stalk Flashpoint. Or will he just let the speedster go?

And what's to be made of To Honor And Serve? If he duplicates his Remsen effort of last November, he'll possibly, even probably, win. If he duplicates his Fountain of Youth, he won't hit the board. And so which effort represents the real To Honor And Serve? Could he have regressed that much? His trainer, Bill Mott, explained that he gave the colt a vacation, some time to grow, and that during that stretch perhaps the light went out. The competitive light. But To Honor And Serve has trained sharply since then, has trained eagerly and turned in some encouraging workouts, and so maybe Mott has succeeded in swtiching the light back on. And how much are you willing to invest in such an illuminating metaphor? But if the light's on, does that mean he'll try to go with Flashpoint? To Honor And Serve led throughout to win the Remsen, and if his light's flashing when the latches of the gate open -- well, he needs to settle if he's going to finish.

And Stay Thirsty could upset, especially if the pace overheats. He has room and reason to improve. He raced wide in both turns of the Gotham, switched back to his left lead when he hit the front, inside the furlong marker, and then drited in. Yes, he has considerable room to improve, and the blinkers go on, but how good is he? He'll have to improve several lengths; to win, he'll have to run at least six and maybe eight lengths faster than he ever has. Is that possible? Well, in his second start of the year, he should be poised to step forward, but how far?

And, of course, they're all going to have to catch Flashpoint. If he's allowed to cruise through an opening half-mile in 48, how far will he run? From here to Kentucky? Well, perhaps he'll run far enough to be a complement to some exotics and maybe even far enough to surprise an expert who's so confident that he predicts, "Flashpoint will lose to any 3-year-old who doesn't drool at the quarter pole."

by Gary West
from star-telegram.com

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