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!

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