Handicappers offer tips on Kentucky Derby
Handicapping your garden-variety eight-horse field on a Saturday afternoon can be daunting in itself. But what do you do when you have the 20 best 3-year-olds running 1¼ miles for the first time, and all the colts are coming from different geographies?
That is the challenge of picking the winner in the Kentucky Derby. The betting public seems to have it figured out because the post-time favorite has won the last five derbies. In an effort to find out which factors to look at, questions were posed to three of the best, all of whom contribute to The Times horse racing newsletter.
The panel is Rob Henie, author of the West Coast (and East Coast) Handicapping Report; Jeff Siegel, an analyst at XBTV.com; and Jon White, the morning-line maker at Santa Anita.
What’s the first thing you look at when you want to cut out some of the horses?
White: Speed figures. If a horse is deficient in the speed-figure department, chances are pretty good that the horse simply is not fast enough to win.
Siegel: There really isn’t a “first thing.” The process involves an overall evaluation of a horse’s form while looking closely at speed figures (preferably rising with each outing); the likelihood of improving or at least maintaining effectiveness as the distances increase based on running style and pedigree; connections (preferring those from stables that have proven successful in major races); and strength of performances based on company lines and flattering or adverse trips. Actually, grading the contenders is more challenging. The have-nots are easy to pinpoint and eliminate.
Henie: That’s a tough one, as most in the Derby have shown enough ability to earn their way to Louisville, but what I’m trying to do is decipher which runners are heading into this race with upside still in play. For example, if they are not overworked to get to this point, not exiting a race I deem as too taxing to now tackle this 1 1/4-mile distance, but rather, appear ready to improve off of their last outing.
White: For me it’s what I call “the eighth-pole factor.” I am looking for a horse who has a good chance to be either first or second with a furlong to go. That’s important because 52 of the last 55 Kentucky Derby winners have been first or second with a furlong to run.
Siegel: There are a few that I lean on. Trainer stats can be powerful if the sample size is large enough. Post-position stats (extreme inside or outside) at different distances at different venues can vary so it’s helpful to recognize the track profile.
Henie: I don’t believe you can say this or that is most important, but one thing to always remember: Getting a horse to the Derby is tough. It’s a task which becomes even more daunting in the race when it becomes an entirely different thing altogether. Some of those challenges include asking a horse to go longer than they’ve gone before while at the same time trying to get them to peak, let alone enduring the circus that comes with the Derby, including in and around the backside. For these reasons, those trainers who’ve done this before successfully can be viewed as holding a significant edge.
What do you look for in breeding and dosage?
White: Breeding does not seem to be nearly as important as it used to be, but I still definitely want to see an element of stamina in the pedigree. It’s very important to look at both the sire’s side and dam’s side. Many people said Secretariat could not win the Kentucky Derby in 1973, believing he did not possess the stamina to win at 1 1/4 miles because his sire was Bold Ruler. But those people did not give the proper respect to the dam’s side of the pedigree, Princequillo, a tremendous source of stamina. And by the way, the dam of Sham, who ran second to Secretariat in the Kentucky Derby and Preakness Stakes, also was a daughter of Princequillo.
Siegel: Pedigree is important to determine the likelihood of success at a classic distance. But there are always exceptions. American Pharoah was produced by a sprinting mare but it didn’t stop him from winning the 12-furlong Belmont Stakes en route to his Triple Crown. Dosage? It’s an incredibly flawed method that is extinct (or should be). Total nonsense.
Henie: I’m not a huge proponent of strictly looking for runners who’re bred to run super long, as their recent efforts give a much better clue when posing the question, “Can he get the distance?” And the reality is, very few runners make up ground late in the Derby, meaning, I handicap the race as a 1 1/8 race, not 1 ¼. This is an effective angle I’ve used for many years.
Do you pay any attention to historical anomalies, such as unraced as a 2-year-old or never a winner from Dubai?
White: I pay a great deal of attention to various stats and trends. But how much importance I give it varies quite a bit. It’s a case-by-case basis. I tend to give more weight to a stat or trend if there seems to be some logic associated with it. I do consider it important that a horse has raced as a 2- year-old. That’s because it seems logical to me that if a horse has made a start as a 2-year-old, in concert with the training required in order for the horse to have made that start at 2, it helps give a horse a good foundation for the tough task of being asked to race farther (1 1/4 miles) and carry more weight (126 pounds) than ever before. Can a horse win the Derby without having raced at 2? Yes, Apollo proved it can be done. But considering 135 straight Kentucky Derby winners have raced as a 2-year-old since 1882, I definitely do prefer to see that a horse raced as a 2-year-old.
Siegel: It’s part of the process. How much? It depends on the strength of the overall resume.
Henie: In recent years, the Derby winners have been more and more lightly raced, and it’s just a matter of time before the “unraced as a 2-year-old” angle is no more. As for runners coming in from Dubai, yes, I give credence to this. It’s a tough trip, a different surface, atmosphere and better rivals over here — meaning, that’s a lot to overcome, and until a horse does, it’s a solid “bet against” angle.
Who is your pick and why?
White: Even though Justify did not race as a 2-year-old, he is my pick because (a) I think he quite possibly is the most talented horse in the race; (b) he has an excellent chance to be first or second with a furlong to go; (c) he has one of the greatest trainers of all time in Bob Baffert, who has won the Kentucky Derby four times; and (d) Mike Smith is one of the greatest big-money jockeys of all time.”
Siegel: Justify is undefeated, he’s won sprinting and routing, on both fast and wet ground, and from off the pace or on the lead. He’s the fastest colt based on Beyer, Brisnet, and Timeform USA speed figures, among others. His tactical speed should keep him free of trouble. In the Santa Anita Derby he defeated the best colt (Bolt d’Oro) among those who finished second in the other five major prep races. Yes, he didn’t run as a 2-year-old, but Justify has too many other boxes checked. The Apollo streak eventually will be broken, hopefully this year.
Henie: Justify, for many of the reasons mentioned. First off, he’s an amazing specimen, just beautiful. He’s also peaking right now, I believe, ready for the race of his young career, with the added distance likely accentuating his current form, not to mention the experience of Bob Baffert aiding his cause.
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