Top 10 Reasons the Kentucky Derby is the Hardest Race to Handicap.

Top 10 Reasons the Kentucky Derby is the Hardest Race to Handicap by James Lambert

The Kentucky Derby has rapidly become one of the most difficult races in the world to handicap. The “best known” handicappers have rarely been able to pick the winner, and have downright embarrassed themselves in some years.

Last year wasn’t too bad because the popular favorite Street Sense prevailed. But let’s go back in the time capsule for a better example. Two years ago in the 2006 Derby, Andy Beyer picked A. P. Warrior to win. A. P. Warrior finished 18th of 20. Dan Illman of the Daily Racing Form staff picked Sweetnorthernsaint. Sweetnorthernsaint finished 7th of 20. Steven Crist of the Daily Racing Form also picked Sweetnorthernsaint. Your author picked Steppenwolfer to come from the clouds. Steppenwolfer only partially emerged from the clouds and finished 3rd of 20. For the record, Barbaro was the Derby winner in 2006.

Why is this one race so difficult to predict? Lord knows we feel like we know all the contenders intimately by the time the first Saturday in May rolls around. I’ve given it plenty of thought and listed my own top 10 reasons why the Kentucky Derby is the hardest race in the world to handicap. Take a look and see if you agree.

The Top 10 Reasons Kentucky Derby Is Now The Hardest Race In The World To Handicap

1. Field size has routinely swollen to the maximum of twenty, and that’s too many horses to squeeze into two turns and not expect major traffic congestion.

This year a full field of twenty is expected yet again. That means auxiliary gates, crowding on turns meant for a field half the size, bumping and grinding for position, major shifts in tactics dictated by post position draw, and continual starting and stopping and restarting momentum. It’s enough to give you and your jockey a migraine.

2. These 3-year-olds are still youngsters, and although we feel we know them by now, they don’t have a lot of lifetime starts.

For several of this year’s contenders, let’s list the starts in 2007, the starts in 2008, and the total starts. For instance, Adriano 4-3-7 indicates 4 races in 2007, 3 races in 2008, and 7 races overall.

Adriano 4-3-7
Behindatthebar 0-5-5
Big Brown 1-2-3
Bob Black Jack 4-3-7
Colonel John 4-2-6
Cool Coal Man 5-3-8
Cowboy Cal 3-3-6
Gayego 2-3-5
Monba 3-2-5
Pyro 4-3-7
Recapturetheglory 4-2-6
Tale Of Ekati 4-2-6
Z Fortune 2-4-6

AVERAGE 3.1-2.8-5.9

The typical Kentucky Derby 2008 contender has three starts or less this year and about six starts overall. The certain post-time favorite Big Brown has only three lifetime starts (two of them in 2008). There are very few races to look at. That’s the beauty and challenge of handicapping the Derby.

3. None of the Derby preps are contested at the Derby 1 1/4 mile distance.

A typical Kentucky Derby prep is either 1 1/16 miles or 1 1/8 miles. The 1 1/16 mile prep covers 15% less ground than the Derby. The 1 1/8 mile prep is 10% shorter than the Derby. That missing 10% or 15% is where many races are won or lost. Think of it another way. If you add up all the races in the Total Races column in the above table you get 77. Of those 77 races, not one was run at the Kentucky Derby distance of 1 ¼ miles.

4. The Derby preps are held from coast-to-coast, so a lot of these colts have never eyed each other on the race course.

The early Derby favorite Big Brown faced (and defeated) Smooth Air and Tomcito in the Florida Derby on March 29. That’s it for Big Brown. Big Brown has never raced against Pyro, Colonel John, Gayego, Z Fortune, Bob Black Jack or Monba. In an allowance win at Gulfstream, the second of his three races, Big Brown manhandled a horse named Heaven’s Awesome. Heaven’s Awesome has only one win in nine starts. What are we supposed to learn from that? Not much!

Some of the other Derby contenders have met each other on the race track. Gayego beat Z Fortune in the Arkansas Derby. Pyro beat Z Fortune in the Risen Star. Cool Coal Man defeated Recapturetheglory in an allowance at Churchill Downs. At least those races were on conventional dirt.

There were also contender battles on the newfangled synthetic tracks. Colonel John defeated Bob Black Jack in the Santa Anita Derby. Monba defeated Cowboy Cal, Pyro and Cool Coal Man in the Blue Grass. And what are we supposed to learn from the Santa Anita Derby and the Blue Grass which are both run on synthetic tracks? Not much! Polytrack performance simply does not carry over to conventional dirt. Cushion Track is a little friendlier to comparisons with dirt (but I wouldn’t rely on it).

5. Only a handful of the contenders normally have a race over the Churchill Downs course, the perennial host track for the Derby. And now that the Polytrack era is upon us, some horses have prepped exclusively on synthetic surfaces.

Let’s revisit our table of Kentucky Derby contenders. This time we’ll be looking at races on conventional dirt and races on the Churchill Downs main track. So Adriano 7-1-0 indicates 7 total races, 1 race on dirt, and 0 races on the Churchil Downs main track.

Adriano 7-1-0
Behindatthebar 5-1-0
Big Brown 3-2-0
Bob Black Jack 7-0-0
Colonel John 6-0-0
Cool Coal Man 8-7-2
Cowboy Cal 6-1-0
Gayego 5-1-0
Monba 5-2-1
Pyro 7-6-1
Recapturetheglory 6-3-1
Tale Of Ekati 6-6-0
Z Fortune 6-5-0

AVERAGE 5.9-2.7-0.4

The typical Kentucky Derby 2008 contender has six lifetime starts, and less than three of those starts were on conventional dirt. The typical Derby contender is lucky to have one race over the Churchill Downs main course. That’s really not much to go on. I blame it on the Poly-Preps.

6. Back to the unruly field size, if a jockey makes a minor mistake, he can lose the race in a blink.

Calvin Borel was both smart and lucky in last year’s Kentucky Derby. Borel hugged the Churchill rail on Street Sense like his life depended on it. And just when he needed it, the seas seemed to part for Calvin Borel. The duo of Street Sense and Borel charged through an opening at the top of the lane and ran down Hard Spun in a picture perfect finish.

It doesn’t always work out like a Hollywood movie. In 1988 there should have been a Triple Crown winner and his name was Risen Star. In the Kentucky Derby that year, under jockey Eddie Delahoussaye, Risen Star was forced to the outside on the backstretch where he stayed until making a charge at the head of the stretch. Unfortunately, he was too late to make up all the lost ground to the eventual winner (the filly Winning Colors) and finished third. Two weeks later in the Preakness Stakes Risen Star won in the fastest race since his daddy Secretariat’s 1973 record time. Three weeks later, he showed off his genes, pulling away from the field and winning by an amazing 15 lengths in the longest of the Triple Crown races, the grueling 1½ mile Belmont Stakes.

Was it Delahoussaye’s ride that was at fault or was it the traffic created by the other 16 horses in the race? We here in New Orleans are suspicious of the role of Risen Star’s trainer (and one-time Fair Grounds owner) Louis J. Roussel III. Roussel has always been a bit of a demagogue and it was strongly rumored he gave Delahoussaye strict instructions to restrain Risen Star early at all costs (for fear of burning out chasing the filly Winning Colors). To my young eyes, it looked as if Risen Star was much the best horse in the Kentucky Derby and he simply ran out of ground. We’ll never know what really happened, but there’s one thing you can count on. A jockey can lose the Derby in the blink of an eye. Just ask Eddie Delahoussaye.

7. Everybody (including the best of the race beat handicappers) pays far too much attention to the media circus, losing track of well grounded handicapping methodology.

I don’t want to needle the media, after all they have a job to do and they do it well. But sometimes the media gives too much ink to a horse just for the sake of building up a frenzy leading to the race. Such was the case in the 2008 Tampa Bay Derby. When you read about a horse like War Pass you have to understand that he is a speed horse, and speed horses sometimes don’t like to get hooked. Well, War Pass got hooked in the Tampa Bay Derby and his supporters “got hooked” to the tune of 1-to-20 odds. The unexpected off-the-board finish sent many bridge-jumpers to an early demise. The thing about the Tampa Bay Derby is that race beat writers totally ignored two very strong colts (Big Truck and Atoned). While War Pass faltered, Big Truck and Atoned simply ran their typical race and finished one-two. Personally, I did not steer my readers to bet the Tampa Bay Derby. I was very wary of the media hype and I ignored it.

Well, the Kentucky Derby doesn’t need any hype. It is the hype. The best strategy is to stick to a tried and true handicapping philosophy. Stick to your guns no matter what the T. V. pundits say (I wouldn’t pay too much attention to Hank Goldberg and his piggy bank).

8. Way too much attention is devoted to the Dosage Index of the contenders. The Belmont Stakes is the only jewel of the Triple Crown where the Dosage Index really comes into play.

The breeding industry has been sacrificing stamina for speed for over twenty years now. As a result, horses don’t hold up as well during the Kentucky Derby prep season. It used to be unheard of for a Derby contender to have only two preps. This year Big Brown has only a single prep and he has only three lifetime races. And nobody raises an eyebrow. Last year Street Sense had only two preps prior to winning the Derby.

Back in 1977, the great Affirmed had nine races as a 2-year-old, seven of which he won. Then in 1978 Affirmed had three preps (the San Felipe, Santa Anita Derby and Hollywood Derby) prior to the Derby on his way to the Triple Crown sweep. And just for the record, Affirmed won all three of his preps. Affirmed remained sound throughout his juvenile and sophomore campaigns, racing strictly on dirt. Who needs Polytrack?

A good Dosage Index (lower is better than higher) generally indicates a pedigree that provides an aptitude for longer distances. Longer distances require stamina and fitness (and not necessarily speed). Dosage Index still comes into play for the mile and a half Belmont, but it’s not really a factor in the Kentucky Derby.

9. Race handicappers have to make their selections before the weather reports are fully accurate, so a sloppy track can change everything.

Nobody picked Go For Gin to win the Kentucky Derby in 1994. But then the skies opened up (and the rains came down). A son of Cormorant, Go for Gin was bred to love an off track, and just as advertised he proceeded to embarrass the rest of the field with a front-running victory. Go For Gin paid $20.20 for a straight $2 win ticket. Naturally race writers have to meet deadlines. That’s why I give selections for both fast and off track conditions should the weather warrant it.

10. There are twenty choices, for God’s sake!

In a five horse field, an average horse has a one in five chance of winning. That’s a 20% random chance you have of picking the winner. In a ten horse field, an average horse has a one in ten chance of winning. That’s a 10% chance. Twenty choices means that an average horse has a one in twenty chance of winning. That’s a 5% chance. If none of the other nine reasons (in the top 10) get you, the numbers game will. It’s simple mathematics, my friend.


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One Response to “Top 10 Reasons the Kentucky Derby is the Hardest Race to Handicap.”

  1. Cory Says:

    Great article. try looking at

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