Kentucky Derby Trends
by Trevor Whenham - 04/29/2009
With most things in life, the more you do them the easier they get. That only makes sense. The same can't be said, though, for handicapping the Kentucky Derby. Just when we seem to get a handle on things, everything changes. Kentucky Derby trends that were once rock solid now look fragile and meaningless, while horses that only recently would have been given no shot to win because of their experience are now legitimate contenders. So much of what we thought we knew about handicapping the Kentucky Derby has either been proven wrong, or has been hopelessly complicated. Here are a few examples of what I am talking about:
Layoffs - It used to be so simple - you couldn't win the Derby if you hadn't run a race in the month before the Derby. Needles managed to win off a long rest in 1956, but for the next 50 years no horse managed to, and not that many bothered to try. But then Barbaro changed everything. He waited five weeks between the Florida Derby and the Kentucky Derby, then he proceeded to annihilate the field in Louisville. Two years later, Big Brown proved that Barbaro's win was no fluke by managing the Florida-Kentucky double again.
This year, Dunkirk is trying the same five-week strategy, and he is far from alone. Regal Ransom and Desert Party both have five weeks and a long trip from Dubai between them and the Derby. The horse really looking to shatter this trend once and for all, though, is Friesian Fire. On March 14 he absolutely crushed the field in the Louisiana Derby. He hasn't run since. That seven-week layoff is virtually unprecedented, and to a lot of observers it makes no sense at all. If trainer Larry Jones can win with this strategy, though, then the Derby prep season could go through yet another change of complexion.
Experience - This is another rock-solid rule that is being threatened. It used to be that you could confidently rule out a horse that had run fewer than six times in his career before the Derby. Only three had managed to win with fewer wins since 1933, and all of them had run five times. Big Brown rocked the foundations of that assertion last year, though - his Derby win came in only his fourth career start. This year, two more runners - Dunkirk and Summer Bird - come into the Derby with a similar three-race base of experience. Another, Hold Me Back, has run just five times.
Not all things have been threatened recently on the experience front, though - you can still feel fairly confident in disregarding a horse with fewer than three starts as a three year old. Only seven horses since 1937 have managed that feat. Last year, six horses tried it, including the winners of most of the major prep races, but none could overcome the lack of recent experience. That trend looks reasonably secure this year. Only two likely starters - Hold Me Back and Mine That Bird - have run just twice this season, and neither is among the elite Kentucky Derby contenders.
Dirt - Synthetic surfaces give me a massive headache. It's not just that they create a different style of racing that isn't generally as entertaining to watch, that they are maddeningly inconsistent despite claims that they shouldn't be, or that the science behind their adoption is questionable. The big thing here is that it's so darned hard to figure out how a horse is going to handle a move from the synthetics to the dirt. Handicapping the surface used to be so simple - a horse would have almost no reason to run on turf before the Derby, so everyone ran on dirt and it didn't matter. Now, though, things aren't so simple. Some horses come into the Derby without ever having run on dirt, and others have limited experience. Dirt behaves very differently than synthetics, and it can be a challenge for horses not used to it - especially in big fields, and especially if the horse is not a front-runner.
As of yet, a horse that has prepped on synthetic surfaces has yet to win the Derby or even to do particularly well. The sample size is small, though, so we can't be sure whether that is a meaningful trend or just a coincidence at this point.
This year's field raises complicated synthetic questions. Likely favorite I Want Revenge changed from a decent horse into a superstar when he moved from synthetics to dirt this spring. He clearly likes the real surface, so it shouldn't be an issue. I can't help but think about Gayego last year, though. He was good in California, moved to dirt for the Arkansas Derby and was great, but then finished just 17th in the Derby. Even more challenging for handicappers are top runners Pioneerof The Nile and Chocolate Candy - two California imports that have never been on dirt. Mr. Hot Stuff is another California runner that is a dirt virgin. He's a full brother to Colonel John, an entrant in the Derby last year. That horse ultimately excelled on dirt, wining the Travers Stakes at Saratoga last August. He didn't take to the surface nearly as well in Kentucky, though, finishing a disappointing sixth.