Derby Handicapping Questions
by Trevor Whenham - 04/25/2007
The Derby is just over a week away and the field, though not set in stone, is starting to become clear. That means that we can start doing our serious handicapping of the field to find the horses that will carry our hopes of riches. Because of all the factors that make the Derby so unique, handicapping it is as much about ruling horses out as it is finding the perfect horse. It's also about finding a theory about the race that you like and then figuring out which horses best fit your theory. As you are formulating your own theory, here are four questions that you are going to have to answer:
Curlin - This is actually a whole bunch of questions packed into one spectacular horse. It has been well documented that a horse hasn't won the Derby without racing as a two-year-old since Apollo in 1882. Curlin has raced just three times, and in only two prep races after breaking his maiden in spectacular fashion. Sunny's Halo in 1983 was the last horse to win with only two preps as a three-year-old. Before that you have to go back to Jet Pilot in 1947 to find an inexperienced winner.
With those two trends stacked pretty heavily against Curlin, it would be pretty easy to throw him out of your figuring. But that's only if you haven't seen him run. He has completely decimated every horse that he's faced, and he is bigger, faster and stronger than most horses he will face. His latest work at Keeneland this week is getting rave reviews for the sheer power and determination that he showed, and the stunning physical specimen that he is.
With Curlin the question you have to answer for yourself is whether this horse is a freak, or if he will fall under the weight of the limitations that have stood in front of so many before him. On top of that, he's likely to be the race favorite, so you will have to decide if you want to be a part of the Derby favorite jinx as well. But that's a different story.
Layoffs - It used to be an unwritten rule that a layoff was a bad thing coming into the Derby. Any horse that was off for a month or more didn't warrant consideration. Then along came Barbaro. He rested for five weeks between the Florida Derby and his impressive win in Louisville. That changed the perception dramatically.
Now several horses are heading to the Derby well rested. Scat Daddy is copying Barbaro by using the Florida Derby as his final prep. Circular Quay takes it a step further. He hasn't run since winning the Louisiana Derby on March 10. That was only his second prep of the year, too, so he will join Curlin in trying to break that trend. Hard Spun hasn't run since the Lane's End on March 24. Before Barbaro there hadn't been a horse to win off a layoff of five weeks or more since Needles in 1956. You have to decide whether Barbaro has changed racing reality, or if his win was just a fluke that won't be repeated this soon.
Juvenile jinx - No horse that won the Breeders Cup Juvenile has come back the next year to win the Derby. Few have even looked good in the Derby. This year Street Sense will be trying to break that trend. He's yet another horse coming in with only two three year old preps. He was impressive in winning the Tampa Bay Derby over Any Given Saturday. He was second in the Blue Grass by a nose to Dominican, but that race deserves an asterisk beside it - Street Sense ducked out badly down the stretch and looked lost, so it was impressive that he was able to overcome that and come as close as he did. In the Tampa Bay Derby, and especially in the Juvenile last year, he benefited from absolutely perfect trips that allowed him to save ground and find a short path to the lead when he made his late move. Can he get that in the Derby? Maybe, but not likely in a massive 20-horse field. Can he win anyway? That's for you to decide.
Polytrack - Polytrack, the synthetic dirt replacement that is supposed to be easier on horses, is relatively new and we still don't seem to have a good idea of how to properly handicap it. In some ways it is closer to turf than it is dirt. Prep races at Keeneland were on the surface for the first time this year, and California is changing over by next year.
We have to determine what meaning we can take from Polytrack races. Part of the problem is that the surface seems to change regularly, and horses have reacted to it by changing racing style as well. Racing at the current Keeneland meet has been just bizarre, with early pace often being so slow that a 90-year-old woman could probably jog on the lead. Dominican won the Blue Grass with a late charge after benefiting from a pedestrian 51.46 second half mile. Is that kind of closing effort something he can replicate in the Derby, or is he just a king of the surface? Will Street Sense look more comfortable on dirt than he did down the stretch at Keeneland? Can Great Hunter's terrible Blue Grass performance be explained purely by problems with the surface? What can we take from all of the impressive workouts that are being posted this week at Keeneland by many of the top horses? So many questions.