Kentucky Derby Handicapping Preview

KENTUCKY DERBY HANDICAPPING PREVIEW

Coming up with the winner of the Kentucky Derby is always one of the toughest handicapping tests of the year for horseplayers. Everyone from the most avid Thoroughbred racing fans to the once-a-year bettors will all be coming out of the woodwork for this one race, focusing on their efforts and their betting money on the task of sorting through the long list contenders and trying to separate them from the pretenders come Derby Day.

Each year, the challenge of picking the Derby winner seems to become more and more difficult, with so many top-quality colts coming from so many different places all heading to the Kentucky Derby with good form and seemingly solid credentials. The more we know, the more we understand that there is so much to understand when it comes to cashing winning tickets on what is often referred to as "The Most Exciting Two Minutes in Sports."

Year-by-year, old and outdated axioms seem to be falling by the wayside in quick succession. They said a filly couldn't win the Derby until two fillies won the race in the decade of the 1980's (and then Eight Belles hit the exacta in 2008).  They said a gelding couldn't win until Funny Cide blew that theory out of the water in 2003, along with the belief that a New York bred couldn't win.

The wise guys said a Breeders' Cup Classic winner couldn't win the Derby because none had done it in 23 years until Street Sense came along and put that theory to rest. The wise guys also said a horse couldn't win the Derby coming into the race with a layoff of five weeks or more, but that one went down in flames, too, when Barbaro won in 2006. Those were probably the same wise guys who told us that Big Brown couldn't win in 2008 because he was making only his fourth career start in the Derby and that meant he didn't have enough seasoning since it had been 93 years since a horse had won the Kentucky Derby in only his fourth career race.

At one point people even believed a favorite could never win the Derby again because such a long period of time had passed after Spectacular Bid scored as the chalk in 1979. If that one wasn't put to rest by Fusaichi Pegasus in 2001, it has since been proven to be dead and buried by subsequent winning favorites Smarty Jones, Street Sense, and Big Brown.

In all seriousness, many of the old Derby rules and axioms that were grounded in things like fitness and seasoning don't seem as important as they used to. Those angles have since given way to a new set of winning Derby trends, based more on freshness, steady improvement, good timing, - and let's face it - good luck (thanks to factors such as good post positions and the right running style).

Instead of focusing on "rules," which are meant to be broken, handicappers should instead focus on solid handicapping factors are based on things such as steady maturation and rapidly improving form, post position, running style, distance ability, proven talent in prep races, and the lack of too much punishment during a horse's 2-year-old season.

Every year, the "Run for the Roses" is shapes up to be one of the more interesting and intriguing races of the year, which is why so many avid and casual racing fans annually focus so much attention on this single two-minute race. Each year we expect field of 20 horses to enter the starting gate at Churchill Downs. In that field of 20 horses we can always expect to see a certain number of real contenders, and an even greater number of pretenders. The trick is finding out which is which.

KENTUCKY DERBY HANDICAPPING ANGLES

The single most important angle to look for when handicapping the Kentucky Derby is finding a horse that is showing a steady and improving pattern indicating that he is coming up to the Derby in a fashion which indicates he's ready to run his best career race.

Leading up to the Kentucky Derby, some horses produce monster efforts that can never be reproduced under differing circumstances than on Derby Day, while some others inconsistently bounce back-and-forth between good races and bad races all winter and spring leading up to the Derby.  Some horses will excel on artificial surfaces leading up to the Derby but then flop when they step foot back on the traditional dirt surface at Churchill Downs. Some of these horses might run a good race in the Derby, but often you will do much better with horses that are steadily progressing and working up toward a peak effort on the first Saturday in May.

Recent Kentucky Derby winners who were peaking at just the right time must be respected. That list includes Animal Kingdom in 2011, Super Saver in 2010, Funny Cide in 2003, War Emblem in 2002, Monarchos in 2001, Fusaichi Pegasus in 2000, and Charismatic in 1999. They all fit the mold of rapidly improving horses that were ready to peak on Derby Day.

Animal Kingdom was exiting his career-best effort in his final pre-Derby prep race in the Spiral Stakes, and would be making his third start off a layoff in the Kentucky Derby.

Super Saver had spiked his career-best Beyer also in his second race off a layoff in the Arkansas Derby in his final pre-Derby prep race.

Funny Cide continued his 3-year-old development nicely in his final prep in the Wood Memorial despite a loss to Empire Maker before turning the tables at Churchill Downs.

War Emblem dropped a hint when he was finer than ever in his final pre-Derby prep race in the Illinois Derby. Charismatic did the same thing when he romped home two weeks before his Derby win in the Lexington Stakes at Keeneland in 1999.

Fusaichi Pegasus looked better and better each time in his preps leading up to the Derby before winning as the favorite in 2000. Monarchos started the year as a NW1 allowance horse in Florida before beginning his steady upward march to the Kentucky Derby winner's circle.

More recently, the even hotter trend has been not only toward improving horses but also toward undefeated horses winning the Kentucky Derby. It has happened three times in five years from 2004 to 2008 with Smarty Jones winning in 2004, Barbaro winning in 2006, and Big Brown winning in 2008.

In Barbaro's case it was a switch from turf to dirt followed by two improving efforts on the dirt. With Smarty Jones it was a steady progression through Oaklawn Park's series of incrementally longer prep races, and with Big Brown it was a tour-de-force in only his fourth career race.

This year's undefeated budding superstar is Gemologist. Will he join the list of undefeated Kentucky Derby winners?

The only three recent Derby winners not mentioned in the above two cases are 2005 winner Giacomo, 2009 winner Mine That Bird, and 2007 winner Street Sense. In 2005, a strong case could be made that Giacomo was, indeed, showing signs of rounding into better and better form in each race leading up to the Derby, however, that improvement was so slow and incremental that it would be a stretch to say handicappers should have been able to make note of it before he sprang his Derby upset.

Mine That Bird was a stretch to come up with at 50-1 odds in 2009, but it should be noted that while his two pre-Derby starts weren't the greatest, they were, in fact, better than any of the races before them.  Yes, Mine That Bird was progressing - not regressing - heading into the running of the 2009 Kentucky Derby.

In the 2007 Kentucky Derby, Juvenile champion Street Sense was an obvious Derby contender, but had not really been moving forward in his most recent pre-Derby starts. It should be noted, however, that Street Sense was already a G1 winner at Churchill Downs in the Breeders' Cup Juvenile, and his pre-Derby form was clouded by his final pre-Derby start which came in the slowly-run Blue Grass Stakes on Keeneland's extremely slow Polytrack course. Street Sense, of course, went on to win, but it should be noted that the horses he keyed exactas and trifectas with - Curlin and Hard Spun - were both horses who both fell into the category of being improving horses who were both ready to peak on Derby Day.

 

POST POSITIONS - TOSS OUT THE INSIDE POSTS 1-2-3

Horses that have drawn outermost posts in the main gate and the innermost gates in the auxiliary gate have done best in the Derby in recent years. These post positions have been in vogue ever since the victories of Charismatic (post #15) in 1999, Fusaichi Pegasus (post #16) in 2000, and Monarchos (post #16) in 2001.

Also note that in 2005 when Giacomo won from post #10, the 2nd through 7th -place finishers all broke from posts #12 and outward! Then, in 2008, Big Brown really blew the doors off the Kentucky Derby post position debate by winning from post #20. Denis of Cork that year ran third from post #16, meaning that two-thirds of the 2008 Kentucky Derby trifecta broke from the auxiliary gate.

In 2009, runner-up Pioneerof the Nile benefitted from his #15 post draw en route to his second-place finish behind Mine That Bird.

In 2011, the outside post position angle yielded yet another powerful showing, with all four superfecta finishers breaking from posts 13 and outward, including winner Animal Kingdom, who broke from the much-preferred post #16.  He was followed by Nehro (post #18), Mucho Macho Man (post #13), and Shackleford (post #14).  If you went one more finishers for the Super High Five, fifth-place went to #11 Master of Hounds.  That meant that every finisher in the Super High Five broke from the outside half of the starting gate.  Incidentally, the 2011 Derby Super High Five went un-hit.

The logic and reasoning behind the theory that outside posts are preferable in 19-20 horse Derbies is solid and makes a lot of common sense. Because of the starting set-up consisting of a main gate and an auxiliary gate, there is a wide space between the two gates. This means there is far more space for horses to operate and maneuver from the outside posts than the horses that break from the inner half of the field, who need to break extremely alertly or risk getting swallowed up by early traffic.

This favoritism is especially true of posts #14-16, which each enjoy the most space in which to operate breaking out of the gate. These outermost gates in the main gate and the innermost gates in the auxiliary gate, in recent years, have been highly regarded ever since the victories of Charismatic (post #15) in 1999, Fusaichi Pegasus (post #16) in 2000, and Monarchos (post #16) in 2001.  Animal Kingdom stamped a strong re-emergence for this angle in 2011 from post #16.

The runner in post #14 has a lot of his space to his outside, the horse in post #15 has a lot of space to his inside, and because the horse in post 15 always moves inward directly after the start, that means that the horse in post #16 indirectly ends up having perhaps the most room to maneuver of all the horses in the starting gate.

When all is said and done, some horses will be hurt by bad trips, some will be aided by good trips, and none of us will know for sure which is which until the betting is closed, the gates open, and the race has been run. Nevertheless, it can't hurt to consider post positions - both positive and negative - into your handicapping on Derby Day, because it can be just one more edge you'll have in your favor. However, when considering post positions, make sure you do it right! Contrary to the popular belief of some, in contemporary Kentucky Derby handicapping, it is the outside that has the advantage, and the inside that is disadvantaged.

Post Positions of Kentucky Derby Winners (1998-2011)

Year

Derby Winner

Post Position

2011

Animal Kingdom

16

2010

Super Saver

4

2009

Mine That Bird

8

2008

Big Brown

20

2007

Street Sense

7

2006

Barbaro

8

2005

Giacomo

10

2004

Smarty Jones

13

2003

Funny Cide

5

2002

War Emblem

5

2001

Monarchos

16

2000

Fusaichi Pegasus

15

1999

Charismatic

16

1998

Real Quiet

3

The Kentucky Derby "Death Rail"

Ferdinand in 1986 was the last Kentucky Derby winner to break from the rail, which also makes him the only Derby winner in the last 30+ years to break from post #1.  During that amount of time the last 33 years, post #2 is 0-for-33, and post #3 is 2-for-33. That makes the inside three posts a combined 2-for-99 in the last 33 Kentucky Derbies.

Even the mighty Curlin, it could be argued, was felled by an inside post. Curlin's connections had one of the final post draws in 2007 and opted for post #2 instead of taking a gate on the far outside. Was that a mistake?  You be the judge based on the numbers. Post #2 has not won the Derby for 33 years, while posts #15, #16 (three times), and #20 have all yielded Derby winners in the 10-year period between 1999 and 2011.

By the way, Curlin finished third after being sent off as the second favorite at post time. Was the post enough of a factor to have cost him the race? We will never know.

Another eventual Preakness winner, Lookin At Lucky in 2010, was also felled by the rail post in the Kentucky Derby.  Lookin At Lucky got wiped out coming out of the gate from post 1 and never had a chance. As a matter of fact, it's a miracle he ran as well as he did for sixth in the Kentucky Derby that year - it was a positive foreshadowing of how well he would run at Pimlico two weeks later in the Preakness.

STALKERS AND CLOSERS HAVE AN EDGE

When handicapping the Kentucky Derby, it is important to consider the fast pace of the race, and the toll it usually takes on front runners. Yes, War Emblem won the 2002 Kentucky Derby wire-to-wire, but for every War Emblem that comes along there are a dozen other cooked front runners who just couldn't withstand a 1 1/4-mile distance after setting blazing early fractions. With the exception of War Emblem and runners-up Hard Spun, who held on for second in 2007, and Lion Heart, who held on for second in 2004, recent Derby front runners routinely tire badly.  Take, for instance recent from runners Bob Black Jack (2008), Keyed Entry and Sinister Minister (2006), Spanish Chestnut and Bellamy Road (2005), Peace Rules and Brancusi (2003), Songandaprayer and Balto Star (2001) who faded badly and were nowhere at the finish.

In the last three years, Shackleford made a relatively good account of himself in 2011 by finishing fourth after setting the early pace.  Based on this relatively great effort for a Derby front-runner, he was actually quite a good bet in Baltimore two weeks later when he came back and won the Preakness.  The 2010 Derby pace-setter Conveyance, finished 15th, and the 2009 pace-setter, Join in the Dance, tired to 7th.

And so, how can you tell the difference if it is going to be one of those years when speed totally bites the dust like in 2010, 2009, 2008, 2006, 2005, 2003, and 2001, or one of those years when speed holds up for all or part of the exacta like in 2007, 2004, or 2002? 

The answer is simple, and only requires a little knowledge and reasonable guesswork on the part of the handicapper. If you can judge the pace of the race, you can figure out whether or not the speed has a chance to hold on - at least to be a part of the exotics.

Running styles of Ky. Derby winners relative to the pace of the race (2000-2011)

Year

Derby Winner

Running Style

Six-furlong pace

2011

Animal Kingdom

Stalker

1:13.2

2010

Super Saver

Stalker

1:10.2

2009

Mine That Bird

Deep Closer

1:12

2008

Big Brown

Stalker

1:11

2007

Street Sense

Deep Closer

1:11

2006

Barbaro

Stalker

1:10.4

2005

Giacomo

Deep Closer

1:09.2

2004

Smarty Jones

Presser

1:11.4

2003

Funny Cide

Presser

1:10.2

2002

War Emblem

Speed

1:11.3

2001

Monarchos

Closer

1:09.1

2000

Fusaichi Pegasus

Closer

1:09.4

In the seven runnings of the Kentucky Derby from 2005 to 2011, the race has been won by four stalkers and three deep closers. This clearly dictates that the trend in the Kentucky Derby currently is working strongly against speed and front-runners, and continuing to favor stalkers and off-the-pace closers.

The 138th running of the Kentucky Derby is here, and handicappers everywhere will be scrutinizing every piece of information available on every contender in the 20-horse field for every clue possible on trying to separate the contenders from the pretenders. Hopefully these tips will help you narrow down the field.

Have fun, enjoy the day, and best of luck in the Kentucky Derby!

By Noel Michaels - OTB Learning Labs

23
Aug
24
Aug

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