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Submitted by Noel Michaels on Monday, April 29, 2013 at 12:00 AM

USE TRENDS TO NARROW DOWN KENTUCKY DERBY CONTENDER

By Noel Michaels


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 picking a winner and 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Year-by-year, old and outdated axioms seem to be falling by the wayside in quick succession.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 (more recently 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 either.

The wise guys said a Breeders’ Cup Classic winner couldn’t win the Derby because it hadn’t been done it in 23 years until Street Sense came along and put that theory to rest in 2007. 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.

Speaking of Big Brown, some people also said he couldn’t win because he drew post 20, but the reality is that the outside posts are actually good, so they were wrong that year and then they were wrong again in 2012 when I’ll Have Another drew post 19 and won the race nevertheless.

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 a dead and buried angle by subsequent winning favorites Smarty Jones, Street Sense, and Big Brown.

In all seriousness, many of the old Derby rules, angles, and axioms that were grounded in things like time between races 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 other factors such avoiding inside post positions and having 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, and talent proven in the prep races.

Every year, the “Run for the Roses” is shapes up to be one of the more 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 can now 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 these is finding a horse that is showing a steady and improving pattern indicating that he is coming up to the Derby ready to run his best career race.

Leading up to the Kentucky Derby, some horses produce monster efforts that can never be reproduced again, 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 Verrazano, who takes an undefeated 4-for-4 record with him to Churchill Downms. Will he join the list of undefeated Kentucky Derby winners, or the even longer list of undefeated Derby disappointments including Gemologist, who entered the 2012 Derby with a 5-for-5 record but exited with his first defeat?

The only four recent Derby winners not mentioned above are 2005 winner Giacomo, 2009 winner Mine That Bird, and 2007 winner Street Sense. Last year when I’ll Have Another won, he had displayed strong form in both prior 2012 starts but did not improve in the start before the Derby (his Beyer figure dropped a point). 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 fell into the category of improving horses that were both ready to peak on Derby Day. Curlin was done in by a disastrous post draw (post 2) that year, while Hard Spun was compromised by distance limitations.

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

Horses that have drawn either the outermost posts in the main gate, or 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, and have continued to get even strong in recent years with the victories of Big Brown (post 20) and I’ll Have Another (post 19) from extreme outside draws.

Also note that in 2005 when Giacomo won from post #10, the 2nd through 7th –place finishers all broke from posts #12 and outward that year!

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.

I’ll Have Another followed suit in 2012 by winning from post 19. By the way, the horses that broke from posts 1-2-3 last year – Daddy Long Legs, Optimizer, and Take Charge Indy – finished 20th, 11th, and 19th, respectively.

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 back to one more finisher 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, so a box of the outside half of the field – for those with deep bankrolls – would have taken down the entire pool.

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.

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. The post positions further outside also tend to benefit from the domino effect. One big exception to this, however, was Lemon Drop Kid, who unluckily got wiped out early in the race after starting that 1999 Derby from post 19. Lemon Drop Kid later made amends by winning the Belmont Stakes and the Travers later that year.

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 (1998-2012)

Year    Derby Winner     Post Position

2012    I’ll Have Another          20

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 34 years, post #2 is 0-for-34, and post #3 is 2-for-34. That makes the inside three posts a combined 2-for-102 in the last 34 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 34 years, while posts 19 and outward have won the Derby twice since 2008.

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 in the Preakness two weeks later at Pimlico.

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.  In 2012, I’ll Have Another was the latest in a long line of Kentucky Derby winners who happened to benefit from having the exact preferred running style for success on the First Saturday in May – his stalking running style put him in position to pass the tiring front runner Bodemeister, while also put him in position to get the jump on the mid-pack closers like Dullahan, and Creative Cause who finished 3rd and 5th, and the deeper closer Went the Day Well, who finished 4th.

Yes, War Emblem did win 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 can’t withstand a 1 1/4-mile distance after setting early fractions that end up being far too fast for a 1 1/4-mile race.

With the exception of War Emblem and a trio of runners-up from the past decade – including Bodemeister in 2012, Hard Spun who held on for second in 2007, and Lion Heart who held on for second in 2004 – recent Derby front runners have routinely tired badly.  Take, for instance recent front runners like 2010 Derby pace-setter Conveyance, who finished 15th, and the 2009 pace-setter, Join in the Dance, who tired to 7th. Before that it was pace-setters including 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 all faded badly and were nowhere at the finish.

Bodemeister actually did an amazing job to hold on for second last year, especially considering that the race’s other front runners, eventual Breeders’ Cup Sprint winner Trinniberg, the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile-winning Hansen, UAE Derby winner Daddy Long Legs, and the undefeated Wood Memorial winner Gemologist, finished 17th, 9th, 20th, and 16th, respectively.

The Derby pace horse that holds on well in the Kentucky Derby is actually becoming quite a solid angle for the Preakness. Shackleford made a relatively good account of himself in the 2011 Derby 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.  In 2012, Bodemeister was the last of the Derby pace horses still standing at the finish (2nd), and he managed to come back and run second again in Baltimore.

And so, how can you tell the difference if it is going to be one of those years when speed totally bites the dust in the Derby like in 2010, 2009, 2008, 2006, 2005, 2003, and 2001, or it’ll be one of those years when speed holds up for all or part of the Derby exacta like in 2012, 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 (2000-2012)

Year    Derby Winner     Running Style        Six-furlong pace

2012    I’ll Have Another          Stalker             1:09.4

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 eight runnings of the Kentucky Derby from 2005 to 2012, the race has been won by five stalkers and three deep closers (zero front runners).  This clearly dictates that the trend in the Kentucky Derby currently is working strongly against speed and front-runners to win, and continuing to favor stalkers and off-the-pace closers.

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The 139th 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!

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