Saturday, May 03, 2008

134th Kentucky Derby

Big Brown winning the Florida Derby by five lengths on March 29th

This year's Kentucky Derby should be an interesting race, though some analysts are calling it a weaker field than usual. Part of the problem - or the fun - is that the top horses all have major questions surrounding them.

Big Brown, a Long Island horse, is the favorite this year (7-2 odds as of this morning), and we could see the making of a superstar in today's race. Jockey Kent Desmoreaux, who's already won the Kentucky Derby twice (more than any other jockey in today's race) said recently, "He’s a major talent, possibly the best horse I’ve ever ridden."

So what's the concern about Big Brown? Andrew Beyer, probably the most famous handicapper in the U.S., lays out the situation in his latest Washington Post column, "A Muddled Field":

The favorite [Big Brown] has won all three of his starts with ease, earning superior speed figures, and none of his rivals has a record remotely comparable. In an ordinary race, a horse with such credentials might look unbeatable.

But the Derby is no ordinary race, and it always is a tough one, requiring horses to run 1 1/4 miles amid the chaos of a 20-horse field -- something they will not do again in their lives. History indicates that horses must have sufficient seasoning to handle the unique stress of the race.

A horse ought to have raced at least five times in his career to be ready for the Derby. No horse with fewer than five starts has earned a blanket of Derby roses since Exterminator in 1918. Thirty have tried and failed. . . .

Curlin came into last year's race with an undefeated record in three starts -- just like Big Brown. By the end of the year, he had proved that he not only was the best colt of his generation but the best horse in the world. Still, he lost the Derby, probably because he didn't have the seasoning to cope with the rough-and-tumble circumstances he encountered at Churchill Downs.

Big Brown faces a second historical obstacle: He drew the 20th pole position, placing him far on the outside. Only two horses have ever won the Kentucky Derby from the 20 position.

The second favorite, Colonel John (4-1), raises what has become the biggest question in this year's race: How will horses who've been prepping on new synthetic tracks, principally in California, fare on traditional dirt? It's a new phenomenon, and handicappers still aren't sure how to deal with the issue. Here's Beyer on the synthetic track factor:

Because of the newness of synthetics, there isn't much historical evidence to make definitive judgments. But it is clear that racing on dirt and racing on synthetics are distinctly different games, and most horses will prefer one to another. So it is reasonable to disregard any horse who has made his reputation on a synthetic track without showing that he can win a stakes on dirt. Put an X over Monba, Adriano, Cowboy Cal, Bob Black Jack and Colonel John.
What muddies the situation even more, however, is that Colonel John set tongues wagging this week at Churchill Downs with a blistering 5-furlong workout on the dirt track. And Colonel John drew a nice 10th post position.

Given that odds on Big Brown and Colonel John will mean minimal return on a bet, and given the questions surrounding them, I wouldn't bother putting any money on either of them. I may root for Big Brown, but not with my wallet.

The third favorite, Pyro (5-1), had been doing great on dirt tracks, but then ran terribly at Keeneland a couple of weeks ago, finishing 10th on a Polytrack surface. Can he get his dirt track groove back? Beyer seems to think so, picking him as his winner:
[Pyro] comes into the Derby after the worst race of his life -- his dismal showing on Polytrack. There's not much history to support the chances of a horse who finished 10th in his final prep race. Yet Pyro is one of only two colts in the field -- the other being Big Brown -- who have demonstrated exceptional talent. He was dazzling when he rallied from far behind to win his racing debut at Churchill Downs last summer. He earned a Beyer Speed Figure of 105 running second in the Breeders' Cup Juvenile last fall. His rally to win the Risen Star Stakes at the Fair Grounds in February was so phenomenal that he evoked comparisons to the legendary Silky Sullivan.

This is a colt whose running style always seemed made to order for the Derby, and he had been the favorite in future betting until his Polytrack debacle. Now he is discredited, but he remains the lone horse in the field with both the raw talent and the racing experience that usually are necessary to win the Derby.
I'm not as sold on Pyro, but if his odds remain 5-1, he might be worth a small bet to win.

Another interesting story is that of the fourth favorite, Eight Belles (8-1), the only filly in this year's race. She's run exceptionally well up to this point - but only against other fillies. Once again, history becomes factor. In 133 runnings of the Kentucky Derby, only three fillies have won, Winning Colors having last accomplished the feat 20 years ago.

Earlier this week, her owners weren't even sure if they would race her today, but they drew a good pole position (5) and decided to give Eight Belles a chance. If she had run some mixed races before today, I might be tempted to place some money on her, but in a rough race like the Derby, I'm not convinced that she can run with the big boys yet. If she does fairly well today and goes on to the Preakness, that could be interesting.

Some Possible Long Shots

Though I haven't been following the horses very closely this year, I did take a peek at the Daily Racing Form yesterday, and there are some intriguing possibilities that haven't gotten the same attention as the top favorites. These are horses who've shown something special in the past and who have long odds, making them attractive for betting - perhaps not to win, but at least to finish in the top three.

1) Gayego (21-1) - On paper, he's probably the second fastest horse in the race after Big Brown. His odds dropped dramatically when he drew the 19 pole position. No horse has ever won the Kentuck Derby from that spot. Also, he's one of the horses who've been running on a synthetic track. Both of those spell doom. But at 21-1, he's shown enough to take a chance on him as a possible long shot. Interestingly, despite Beyer's concern about synthetic tracks, he still picked Gayego to come in third.

2) Smooth Air (40-1) - This is a classic gut pick. As I read through the Racing Form, I found myself coming back to Smooth Air on several occasions. He's finished in the money (1st-3rd place) in all seven of his races. His speed ratings in 2008 are actually better than all but a few horses. In his last race, the important Florida Derby on March 29, he came in second place behind Big Brown. Why isn't anyone talking about him? Probably because he hasn't run as many distance races as other horses. He faded a bit at the end of the Florida Derby, which was only a mile and an eighth. But at 40-1, I simply wouldn't pass him up. I'd factor him into some kind of bet.

3) Tale of Ekati (45-1) - Another gut pick. And, perhaps, some local track bias. He won New York's most important prep race, the Wood Memorial at Aqueduct, which happens to be one of my favorite tracks (take the A Train out to Aqueduct!). And he beat War Pass that day, who many consider a top horse right now. (War Pass is skipping the Derby but is scheduled for the Preakness.) I don't have a lot of hope for Tale of Ekati, but I'd probably put a little down on him somehow.

4) Z Fortune (17-1) - He's finished 2nd to Gayego and 2nd to Pyro, so he's competitive with great horses. Pretty good speed ratings, including an impressive 102 in his last race. Beyer picked him to come in 2nd, a likely kiss of death as a good betting possibility. My feeling is that people will start moving over to him as post time gets closer, so he may not be as attractive in the end.

5) Bob Black Jack (26-1) - He actually has the highest speed rating in a single race of any of the 20 horses, an exceptional 109 back in January. But he's another horse moving from synthetic tracks to dirt. Finished 2nd to Colonel John in the Santa Anita Derby in early April. Could surprise.

6) Recapturetheglory (47-1) - Looks like a good solid horse. Won the Illinois Derby a few weeks ago. Decent speed. Has raced on dirt three times and won twice. Bad pole position (18), unfortunately.

The beginning of the race will be critical and fascinating. The two speedier horses, Big Brown and Gayego, are out on the far end and will battle to get inside as soon as possible. A 20-horse Kentucky Derby is always a bit of a slug fest, but Big Brown and Gayego could make this more of one than usual. If Big Brown wins that battle and gets into a good position early, he may win. But the two could also burn each other out in that contest. Also, Big Brown doesn't have experience being way back in the pack - he's never been farther back than 3 - so we don't know how he'll respond to that situation should it occur.

Most analysts don't think this will be a particularly fast race, so that could benefit some of the horses with good but not blistering speed ratings. (Smooth Air?)

I haven't been paying enough attention to the horses to try and pick the top three. But if you want a safe bet on a horse, you can never go wrong with Secretariat. (See my last post.)

Will Big Brown become a superstar? He's probably the one horse with a shot at achieving the Triple Crown this year. Can he win despite his inexperience?
Can Colonel John overcome the move from a synthetic track?
Will Pyro be able to comeback from his disastrous last start?
Can Eight Belles show the big boys that she can play rough as well?

Or will we have another surprise winner like Giacomo in 2005, who was a 50-1 choice that day?

To find out, tune in to NBC at 6:04 EST this evening.

UPDATE (3:29 pm EST): Just took a look at the weather for Louisville this afternoon. 30% chance of rain from 4-6 pm, with isolated thundershowers. If the track turns sloppy, I like Smooth Air even more. He's run twice on sloppy tracks and won both times.

Hmm. I may have to go look for that OTB site . . . .


greenrun said...

The winner is Pyro
for more details here:

cowboyangel said...

Thanks for the link. Good points about the weather. I had been wondering about track conditions.

Jeff said...

Oh... Haven't seen the race yet, I'm at the office, but I just saw a headline. Eight Belles... What a shame.

cowboyangel said...


Yeah, it's always very upsetting to me when a horse dies at the track. I was at Belmont when Prairie Bayou, a horse I really liked (and won money on), had to be put down. Terrible day that was. Today was particularly tragic, because Eight Belles ran such a great race, coming in a strong second.

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