Kentucky Derby Handicapping Tips
by Victor Ryan - 04/14/2009
Over the decades, handicappers developed a slew of rules and principles to help identify the winner of each year's Kentucky Derby. But the modern game has turned many of these ideas (i.e. must have three starts at age three, must have raced within a month of the Derby, etc.) on their heads. Here's a few Kentucky Derby handicapping tips to consider for this year's Run for the Roses.
Since 1992, the year Beyer Speed Figures were first presented in the Daily Racing Form, the average winning Beyer for the Kentucky Derby has been 109.3. The only two Derby winners not to have posted a Beyer of at least 100 during the prep season were Sea Hero in 1993 and Giacomo in 2005.
This trend, if it continues, instantly eliminates a quartet of prime contenders. Santa Anita Derby winner Pioneerof the Nile, Arkansas Derby winner Papa Clem, Illinois Derby winner Musket Man, and Lane's End Stakes winner Hold Me Back have each failed to reach the 100+ threshold this year.
Of course, it must be noted Pioneerof The Nile and Hold Me back have been prepping on synthetic surfaces in California and Kentucky, respectively. Those surfaces often produce slower figures than what you see on traditional dirt tracks such as the one at Churchill Downs. How those two will perform on the natural stuff is all conjecture, but in the early history of artificial surfaces there have been very few horses able to replicate their top synthetic figures on dirt or vice versa.
Modern training techniques place a premium on a horse having plenty of time between races and, as a result, they are making many fewer stops on the road to the Kentucky Derby than in the past. In fact, the last two winners of the Kentucky Derby, Big Brown last year and Street Sense in 2007, each had just two preps as three-year-olds before heading to the main event. That was an unheard of schedule until recently.
Of course, not all prep races are created equal. Eight of the last 12 winners of the Kentucky Derby had their final preps in either the Wood Memorial at Aqueduct in New York or the Santa Anita Derby in California.
The winner of this year's Wood, I Want Revenge, is expected to go off the favorite on Derby day. Santa Anita Derby winner Pioneerof The Nile beat him earlier this year when both were stabled in California, but that of course came on a synthetic track.
The hottest prep race of recent vintage has been the Florida Derby at Gulfstream Park. Both Barbaro in 2006 and Big Brown in 2008 won the Florida Derby prior to taking home the roses. This year's winner, Quality Road, has been very impressive in South Florida and looms a major threat.
Going the Distance
Among the more intriguing aspects of the Kentucky Derby is its 1 ¼-mile distance and 20-horse field. None of these three-year-olds has ever gone that far nor have they faced this many rivals all at one time. Many formulas and theories have been created over the years to help judge if a horse can "get" the classic American distance based solely on his pedigree. In recent years, though, these figures have lost some of their standing due to a variety of reasons. Most notably, horses are now bred more for speed and precociousness than stamina and class. That makes many of the old baselines worthless.
In addition to a horse's pedigree, the basic handicapping principles of pace and race shape can also help find if a horse can win at this distance. For example, let's say a horse has had success while racing up close to the early pace in the prep season. But the Derby pace is projected to be fast because there are others entered that will want the early lead. That could lead to a suicidal duel on the front-end that leaves the contestants with nothing left in the stretch.
On the other hand, if the pace is slow that could hinder the chances of horses that like to sit back and make one big late run. Studying the past performances and finding each horse's preferred running style will help to figure how the race is expected to be run and what styles could be successful.
Finally, Have Fun
Remember, this is unlike any other race of the year and weird things do happen. The pools are huge and the payoffs are potentially life-altering (Giacomo, anyone?). Yes, three of the last five winners have been favorites, but the full 134-year history of this race tells us this is no time to eat chalk. Good luck.