Kentucky Derby 134

May 03, 2008 | Ed Frankovic

Kentucky Derby

The first Saturday in May is always a special day in the sports world because it provides us with the most exciting two minutes of action – the Kentucky Derby. Growing up in Laurel and watching Secretariat win the 1973 Triple Crown with my dad on TV hooked me on horse racing early on in my life. Then when Seattle Slew won the Triple Crown in 1977 followed by Affirmed in 1978 I was sold on the sport for life. Back in those days Maryland was the premier state for horse racing.

You’ve heard Nestor say this on the air and probably heard it as well as from many others you may know who have ever been there and it is true: the Kentucky Derby is the best sporting event of all to attend. I attended 10 straight Derby’s from 1996 to 2005 and I wholeheartedly agree. The Kentucky Derby is a blast and if you ever have the chance to go you should attend it.

One of my favorite things about the race is the challenge it presents in handicapping the field. If it is done successfully it can lead to some good payouts because of the typically large field (20 horses or some number close to that). To win the Derby a horse has to be very good and have luck in getting a good trip around the track. I’ve seen some very good horses not win the Derby, with Point Given coming immediately to mind. Naturally, the Derby is the crown jewel of racing because it is the first event of the Triple Crown and because of its history. Personally I think the best race of the three from a pure horse racing standpoint is the Preakness, but I’ll discuss that more over the next couple of weeks after tomorrow’s Derby.

My Handicapping Strategy

Everyone has their own ways of handicapping this race but here are some rules I generally stick to when determining my wagers:

  1. With the advent of the Beyer Speed figure this race has almost always been won by a horse who posted a triple digit Beyer in a previous race to the Derby. The one exception I can think of off the top of my head is Giacomo in 2005.
  2. The race is typically won by a horse that comes off the pace and if you can identify who the early speed will be in the race you can typically eliminate them from winning. That doesn’t mean a horse that is up near the front early in the race won’t win, because I saw that with Smarty Jones in 2004, but typically it does not happen. The front runners fade and the closers come in, especially with a hot pace.
  3. Look for horses with a good pedigree that can go the longer distance. The Derby is the first time any of the horses will run a mile and a quarter (10 furlongs).
  4. A horse needs to have at least three prep races prior to running in the Derby because of the experience required to handle this crowded field.

When I look back on how I’ve done over the last 13 years wagering on this race I’ve had winning tickets with Silver Charm (1997), Real Quiet (1998), Fusaichi Pegasus (2000), Funny Cide (2003), Smarty Jones (2004), and Street Sense (2007). On several of those occasions I have had the exacta, including last year. So I’m batting about 50% on picking the Derby winner.

Interestingly, the horse I solely bet on in 1996, Louis Quatorze, did poorly in the Derby but came back two weeks later and won the Preakness. In 2001 I had my money on Point Given in the Derby only to see him finish fifth but fortunately I was able to more than make my money back at the Preakness when I had Point Given, A P Valentine, and Congaree boxed for the triple. Overall, wagering on the Derby is a lot of fun and challenging.

Kentucky Derby 134

Picking this year’s winner or exacta is much more difficult than in past year’s because of one primary reason: the introduction of synthetic racing surfaces. As I mentioned above, I am a big fan of Andrew Beyer’s speed figures but based on what I’ve seen so far the figures on synthetic tracks appear to be lower than on dirt or turf tracks. Perhaps there isn’t enough of a history with the synthetic tracks to correlate and compare the times on those surfaces to the natural ones? Anyways, looking at the field this year there are only six horses that have a previous Beyer speed figure over 100 in a non-sprint race: Big Brown, Gayego, Z Fortune, Pyro, Eight Belles (filly), and RecapturetheGlory.

In the past you often needed at least a 105 speed figure in a previous race to win but examining this year’s field shows that the overall numbers are down. So does this mean this is a weak crop of three year olds or has the synthetic surfaces caused the speed figures to be lower? I’m not totally sure but there is probably a bit of both factors involved.

Anyways, the top horse on paper is Big Brown who had a 106 Beyer in winning the Florida Derby in convincing fashion. However, Big Brown is starting from post 20 and has only raced three times in his life. I think this is a very good horse, probably the best in the field, but because of the nature of the race, his lack of experience, and the post position I am throwing him out of my wagering choices. I do think if Big Brown comes out of the Derby unscathed that he will win the Preakness and Belmont if his owner and trainer decide to run him in both. Curlin had a similar record last year and didn’t win the Derby but won the Preakness and the Horse of the Year honors.

So which direction am I going if I am tossing out arguably the best horse in the race? Well, I’m going along with the expert, Andrew Beyer, and taking his three choices: Pyro, Z Fortune, and Gayego and adding in Colonel John in a $2 exacta box. If I had to pick a winner it would be Pyro because of his closing style and the fact that he really likes dirt surfaces. I don’t see huge early speed or a rabbit in this race but there will be enough of it to allow Pyro to come from behind. He stunk up his last start in the Blue Grass Stakes at Keeneland but that race was on a synthetic track so I see that performance as an aberration.