By David Stratton | For the next couple of weeks, racing fans will be in pari-mutuel heaven. Not only do they have the Kentucky Derby on Saturday to test their faith in Past Performances, but during the week following the Derby they’ll be extolling the merits of a potential Triple Crown winner.
Of course, there hasn’t been a Triple Crown winner since Affirmed pulled it off 30 years ago. But, we’re getting ahead of ourselves – the task at hand is picking the winner of the Kentucky Derby.
The job is never an easy one because of the all the unanswered questions associated with horses in the embryonic stage of their racing career.
Before tackling some of those questions, it will be helpful to narrow down the field from its expected 20 horses.
Over the past decade or so, GamingToday has used a mathematical formula to identify the most likely Derby winner and, to the best of my knowledge, the system has never failed.
That’s not to say the system has picked the winner each year. But it has identified the winner from among a group of five candidates.
|Kentucky Derby Early Odds|
|Tale of Ekati||15-1|
|Cool Coal Man||15-1|
|Bob Black Jack||20-1|
|Denis of Cork||30-1|
|Courtesy of Mike Battaglia|
The formula used to isolate the five contenders involves cryptic branches of calculus – differential equations and a series of Laplace transformations.
There’s no point delving into an esoteric explanation of the math, which most people wouldn’t understand anyway (including myself), but suffice it to say it is based on speed ratings – the ability of a horse to run fastest from point A to point B.
So, after doing the math, the top five Derby contenders are Big Brown, Bob Black Jack, Cowboy Cal, Gayego and Smooth Air.
Noticeable by their absence from the list are horses likely to receive considerable backing on Saturday, including Colonel John, Pyro and Monba.
Colonel John, while putting together a stellar record, simply ran too slowly in one of his last three races; which is the same transgression that knocked Monba off the list.
It’s tempting to include horses that "would have" made the list if they didn’t have one bad race, but for now we’ll resist those temptations.
For instance, Pyro looked brilliant winning the Risen Star and Louisiana Derby, but flopped as the even-money favorite in the Blue Grass, which was his first race on the artificial track.
And Monba’s lone "bad race" occurred in the Fountain of Youth, where he ran last as the field’s lukewarm 7-2 favorite.
But Monba had a legitimate excuse that very few handicappers knew about. A few weeks after his poor showing, he had an operation on his throat. Normally, those procedures are used to clear a blockage that often hinders a horse’s ability to breathe freely.
If that were the reason for his troubles, the operation was a success as Monba came back to win the Blue Grass Stakes two weeks ago.
Unfortunately, you could make that same "unusual circumstances" argument for over half the Derby field to rationalize a low speed rating.
And, while Pyro and Monba would be the exceptions to the rule, we’ll stick with our Big Five and evaluate their chances on Saturday.
Big Brown: There’s no doubt the Florida Derby winner will be the top betting choice as he’s destroyed every field he’s faced.
Unfortunately, he hasn’t faced enough fields – he’s raced only three times in his career – thus he’d be the first horse since Regret in 1915 to win the Derby on such a short resume.
Some experts believe he’s the best horse and experience shouldn’t outweigh his talents. Perhaps that’s true and he will break cleanly, clear the field and cruise to a three-length Derby romp.
But, keep in mind, one of his races was against maidens (non winners) and one was against horses that won only a maiden race. He’ll be facing a slew of tested horses – some with plenty of tactical speed – that he’s never experienced before.
For those reasons, we’ll pass on Big Brown.
Bob Black Jack: Even though this one is likely to be one of the Derby pace-setters, you have to like his toughness. Even though he lost the Santa Anita Derby at the wire to Colonel John, he was game in his try, begrudgingly giving up the last few yards of real estate.
Still, he’s never won a race coming from off the pace and it’s not likely he can lead from wire-to-wire over the grueling Derby course against other quality sprinters.
Cowboy Cal: With his natural early speed, this could be another of the early pacesetters. He led stablemate Monba for most of the Blue Grass before relinquishing the lead at the end, which was the same scenario that occurred in the Hallandale Beach Stakes at Gulfstream.
He’s had success coming from off the pace over two turns, but those were on turf courses.
The aforementioned Monba, which is also trained by Todd Pletcher, actually looks like a better prospect than Cowboy Cal, so the latter doesn’t warrant consideration here.
Smooth Air: Even though he was a distant second to Big Brown in the Florida Derby, Smooth Air merits consideration in the Derby.
Trained by old-school favorite, 70-year-old Bennie Stutts, Smooth Air seemed to have improved in every outing, even though most of his success came in sprint contests.
Nonetheless, Stutts has been training him for stamina and it’s not likely the horse will quit over the mile-and-a-quarter Churchill course.
Instead, Smooth Air, because of his tactical speed, should be close enough to make a legitimate run in the stretch and, although he may not win, he should be moving forward at the wire.
Gayego: Even though Colonel John gets all the ink, this could be the best horse coming out of the California preps. In his first try around two turns, Gayego was nailed at the wire by Georgie Boy, the leading contender for the Santa Anita Derby before injuring himself.
Gayego came back to win the Arkansas Derby going away, his first test on a non-artificial track. In that race, he showed he can come off the pace, though he has plenty of early speed to keep him out of any Kentucky Derby traffic problems.
Choosing between Gayego and Smooth Air isn’t easy, but let’s give the nod to Gayego, who, unlike Smooth Air, shouldn’t get caught in early trip trouble, always a key in the Kentucky Derby.