April 30, 2013

Handicapping Lessons from recent Derbies

Mark Twain was credited with the expression, “History does not repeat itself, but it does rhyme.” But let’s not draw back to 100+ year-old statistics when refreshing our views leading into this year’s Derby (no winner failed to run as a 2YO since Apollo, must have three Derby preps, prep race needs to be within 4 weeks of Derby, dosage index must be under 4.0, yadda, yadda.). Rather, let’s reflect on the “new normal” of the last few years and try to find the Orb, Verrazano, Goldencents and Revolutionary of previous years and see how that race turned out for similar horses (somewhat of a misnomer since horses are “wild creatures” as my wife reminds me when ours do not win!).

IMHO, the 2013 Derby is shaping up much like 2009, 2010 and 2011, when there was debate as to the superior horse (which Bodemeister clearly was leading into last year’s Derby). Strangely enough, the ’09 and ’10 editions of The Derby were run over a sloppy (sealed) track, which possibly could have distorted the outcomes although the results seem plausible based on the respective pace scenarios. Though a slight chance of rain is in store for Friday's Kentucky Oaks, it is very likely to be a fast track come late Saturday afternoon. The favorites in those three years were Friesan Fire at 4-1 (speed), Lookin at Lucky at 6-1 (stalker) and Dialed In at 5-1 (closer), respectively.  None of these favorites came close to hitting the board, although Lucky was most compromised by his #1 post position and rough trip. Conclusion; betting AGAINST the favorite generally works in the 20 horse field.

All you will hear about the next few days leading up to the race is which horses seemed to "move well over the track" by a few bonehead clockers who have prejudices in which horses they favor just like you and I and tend to wrap their influence around the logical top choices.  Let’s review final workouts from previous years: Friesan Fire had a freaky 57.4 second five furlong tuneup but was bumped at the start and never seemed to get in rhythm in a stalking trip, only beating one horse at the finish. That year’s unlucky loser, Pioneerof the Nile had a final work of 1:01 “average” work.  In 2010 Lookin at Lucky had a 1:00.4 “average” work and also was jostled at the start to trail early and lost all chance even though he finished 6th.  That year’s winner Super Saver was reported to be the best mover over the Churchill surface shooting four furlongs in 47.2, which led to this speedball going off as the 2nd choice even though he hadn’t won in two starts before.  Finally, in 2011 Dialed In turned in most of his timed works in Florida before shipping to Louisville but was reported to gallop strong leading into the race (similar to Itsmyluckyday this year). Meanwhile, Animal Kingdom had one of the fastest 6 panel workouts in 1:13 flat to prove he could handle a dirt surface in his first attempt.  Conclusion; workouts are INCONCLUSIVE since most horses are said to work “great” and half of these run well and the others do not. My opinion is that workouts are most important for maiden races, not graded stakes races!

Looking over recent Derby outcomes, the best place to be after a half mile (4 furlongs) is between the coveted 3rd to 7th positions in the second flight of horses, preferably on the outside to avoid kick-back and traffic. This stalking position is exactly where 6 of the most recent 10 Derby winners came from. Because of this relatively open field (even the top jocks had trouble deciding on their Derby mount – more on that later in the week), it should set up the odds for lukewarm favorites (5-1 range) and cause more wagering dispersion which leads to monster payoffs - assuming one of the superfecta horses are greater than 25-1. Many horses could be considered adaptable enough to fit this profile, depending on post positions and how the field settles into the first turn. I will point out that in 2010 Super Saver had shown much more speed in his Derby preps but was able to lay 6th in The Derby thanks to the skilled hands of pilot Calvin Borel. But based on past performances alone the most likely stalkers would be Overanalyze, Vyjack, Will Take Charge, Itsmyluckyday, Frac Daddy, Palace Malice, Oxbow and Charming Kitten. Conclusion; be sure to play whichever horse you THINK will be in this sweet spot when the dust settles. Look to jockey and trainer quotes for clues, but avoid the analysts "predictions" as even savvy guys like Jerry Bailey and Randy Moss get it wrong quite often.

Finally, last year I learned a painful (and expensive) lesson that there is no substitute for winning.  I really liked both Santa Anita Derby colts but preferred Creative Cause in my tickets (behind my top pick Bodemeister) since he was getting to I'll Have Another down the stretch and I though the extra furlong would aid his "cause." But jockeys set up their timing in moves much differently from race to race and a typical mistake is to simply play the horses closing the best at the very end. Conclusion; I prefer Verrazano over Normandy Invasion and Vyjack, Revolutionary over Mylute, Overanalyze over the entire Ark. Derby field.

I will save my speed scenario until after I can evaluate the post position draw, which will be held Wednesday afternoon. Good luck with your picks!

Taking a stand against...

I am going to put this out there early in the week so that in the event my horse savvy friends think I am throwing my money away, they will have time to convince me otherwise.  

It is hard to pick one winner from a field of 20 horses. I mean, it is real hard when it comes down to it. Based on these young horses past performances and the fact many are still going through growth spurts and learning pains, it's damn near impossible to settle on one. So often in years past, I have an easier time whittling down the list before I can ultimately settle on a winner. Perhaps it is due to my "against the grain" mentality, but I really like finding flaws in a horse as more and more people jump on the bandwagon. And this year I have already reached my tipping point with Orb.

Yes, Orb, the closer who looks and acts and smells (presumably) like a stone cold race horse. I'm tossing him.  You are what?  That's right -- he's out, Jerry!  Why in the hell would you be throwing out the most blue-blooded, consistent closer in the field when he's gobbling up the Churchill Downs track like a fat man at a Cici's pizza buffet, you ask?  Let me use as exhibits A, B, C and D the damning quotes from his alleged "supporters";

A) Orb's trainer, Shug McGaughey on his recent stellar workout in company (where do all these nicknames for trainers come from, anyway? Shug, Chip, Rudy...): "He has a tendency to make the lead and then think he's done enough, so we wanted him to finish on by that horse." 

B) Orb's jockey, Joel Rosario: "He can get a little nervous in the gate but he's getting better each time." Is this what you want to see from the likely 5-1 2nd choice - "nervous... improvement."  If I wanted to bet on a nut-case at the starting gate we should bring back Quality Road or Coronado's Quest (another McGaughey trained horse who couldn't even run in the Derby because he was too flaky - can we see a pattern here?!) 

C) Orb's previous jockey John Velazquez: "This horse sucks, I'd rather ride Verrazano so I can actually win the Derby instead of being an also-ran." Okay, Johnny did not actually SAY this, but you know he meant it but just didn't want to hurt the owners feelings.

D) Orb's majority owner Stuart Janney, III (spoken with my bottom jaw pushed out like a Family Guy character): "Is there a horse race this Saturday? I haven't even paid attention since I'm the big-shot chairman of Bessemer Trust Company and the federal stock market is higher than it's ever been. Why wait for two minutes to collect the measly $2 million purse money when I made more than that every second last Friday when the club boys and I were shorting gold. Ha ha ha ha ha ha, now where is my mint julep?"

Okay, so quotes C and D were make-believe, but you get the point. Back to the facts, two of Orb's three Gulfstream Park wins in 2013 were less than spectacular at 9 furlongs posting BRIS speed figures of 89 and 97. His best effort came in the 1 1/16th miles Fountain of Youth where he closed off a blistering early pace (45.2 half mile) en route to passing Violence by a half length while recording his career best speed figure of 102. If he is actually improving from each start as everyone gushes, why did his BRIS # drop 5 points in his last race against better competition as the distance increased? It was a very mediocre time which can be deceiving when a horse wins easily against weak competition, which I believe that was. 

Finally, Florida horses have disappointed in Kentucky over the last five years with the exceptions of Ice Box closing in the slop for 2nd in 2010 and Big Brown's PED year of 2008. Personally, I was burned by Dialed In two years ago - another false closer. I'll watch all this money of the so-called experts flow to Orb and follow the true expert (Johnny V.) with my money towards Verrazano. Everyone wants to bet a closer yet fewer true closers win that stalking horses, due to the jostling for position, kick-back, blocked paths, etc. So why accept a closer that is likely to be co-favorite in the 5-1 range when so many others could just as easily run into the exotics? May not happen, but that's how I see it.

Talk Derby to Me,

April 28, 2013

Derby Week 139 Willkommen!

Since I have just returned from a North Texas German Fest, I want to welcome you to Kentucky Derby Week hundertneununddrei├čig (better known as #139 to non-Deutschlanders)!  This year's bunch of sophomores have seemed to morph into a group of "haves" and "have-nots."  A lofty few are repeat winners this winter/spring; Orb, Verrazano, Revolutionary and Goldencents. But the majority have seemed to play supporting actor roles to the aforementioned headliners. This long list includes Vyjack, Itsmyluckyday, Oxbow, Palace Malice, Frac Daddy, Falling Sky, Mylute, Charming Kitten, Normandy Invasion and Java's War (although a recent win over a synthetic track). The final group has been lightly raced and unproven against top competition; Overanalyze, Black Onyx, Will Take Charge, Governor Charlie, Lines of Battle, Winning Cause.

Fortunately, I zeroed in on the right two horses early in the spring and have watched both Verrazano and Revolutionary make me look like an experienced "railbird" race after race. The tough part now is deciding on only one for my official pick since they could not have more opposite running styles leading into the 10 furlong affair. And while conventional wisdom would point to the closer, my methods are anything but conventional. I will wait and share my picks late in the week as I would hate to be accused of corrupting any of your personal choices!

I have also come across a true sleeper pick that I will share after the post position draw that could really fuel a monster exotics ticket. Man, there's nothing like the anticipation of Kentucky Derby week so let's make the most of each day this week!  Check back tomorrow for more Derby history and later in the week for a tribute to recently deceased sire, Storm Cat.

To help find YOUR Derby horse, I am attaching a couple of my favorite references...