Plenty of factors in choosing a Derby winner

May 1, 2001 11:05 AM

LOUISVILLE, Ky. - This Kentucky Derby features one of the most solid favorites in years in Point Given, a colt many rival trainers describe as having little, if any, weakness.

Yet those same horsemen also say Saturday’s 127th Derby has an extremely talented supporting cast that shouldn’t be overlooked. A field of up to 18 - with late additions of Arctic Boy, Startac and Lexington Stakes winner Keats still considered possible - is expected to be entered Wednesday for the 1½-mile classic.

Point Given is 2-for-2 this year and has won three straight, capped by the Santa Anita Derby. But he’s praised as much for his last defeat: by a nose to Macho Uno in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile after being last and coming 10 wide on the final turn.

A trio of horses turned in huge efforts in winning their final preps two weeks ago by open lengths - Millennium Wind (Blue Grass), Congaree (Wood Memorial) and Balto Star (Arkansas Derby). And then there’s Monarchos, the impressive Florida Derby winner who closed strongly to be second in the Wood. In any other year, any of these horses would be favored.

Let’s take a look at some interesting trends/angles relating to the "Run For The Roses":

FAVORITES - Despite last year’s winner (Fusaichi Pegasus - $6.60), wagering on the favorite is a low percentage play in such a large evenly matched field. Prior to last year, the favorite hasn’t won since 1979.

FIELD SIZE - Over the past four decades, the average field size has crept up from 13 to 17. For the first time in Derby history, uncoupled entries are allowed.

TWO-YEAR-OLD CAMPAIGN - Coming into last year, 14 previous Derby winners had run anywhere from two to nine times as 2-year-olds with 11 winners (73 percent) falling into the three to seven race range. The length of a horse’s juvenile campaign is often dictated by his soundness and/or the training methods of the trainer. Note that D. Wayne Lukas and Bob Baffert have accounted for five of the last seven Derby winners, with Baffert also saddling a runner-up during that time span.

THREE-YEAR-OLD CAMPAIGN - All but one Derby winner in the last 15 years showed a three-to-five race campaign at age 3. Also, I like to see that my choice can find the winners circle in a big race as a 3-year-old. Why? Because 13 of the last 15 winners earned a stakes victory sometime during their short 3-year-old campaigns. Not necessarily a Grade 1 at age three, although 6 of the last 15 earned that honor.

RUNNING STYLE - Since this race is run at 1¼ miles, running style is a very important factor in the Kentucky Derby. None of the entrants have attempted to go this far in a race. Speedballs and stalkers rarely do well, and this year’s field is loaded with speed.

The last 15 Derby winners posted a sharp race in their final prep. For this angle, we define a sharp race as an in-the-money finish or a finish within four lengths of the winner. Be a little flexible with this one. If a horse finished five lengths back but ran into heavy traffic around the far turn or was the victim of a slow pace, it may have still run a sharp race.

KEY PREPS - Derby contenders usually start their campaigns in one of four locales: Florida, Louisiana, Southern California, or New York. Each circuit stages key prep paths that culminate in a prep "Derby." Note that Southern California-based horses have been the last four Derby winners. However, from ’90 to ’95, horses starting their campaign in Florida took home first prize five times.

BEYERS - Eight of the last nine winners ran a 105 Beyer in a dirt route prior to the Derby. Also, eight of the last nine winners ran a 100+ Beyer during its 3-year-old campaign. Six of the last eight winners popped at least two 100+ Beyers prior to the Derby. The entrant with the highest Beyer (Millennium Wind this year) in the field often does a crash and burn. It is also imperative to find a horse that hasn’t already peaked. Beware of any starter that has posted two or more consecutive lifetime best Beyers.

TRAINERS and JOCKEYS - In the last 15 years, only three active trainers have been able to post multiple Derby winners: Bob Baffert (2), D. Wayne Lukas (4), and Nick Zito (2). In this race, it usually pays to stick with a top trainer, someone capable of winning a Grade 1 race. Ditto for the jockeys. Jerry Bailey (2), Kent Desormeaux (2), Chris McCarron (2), and Gary Stevens (3) are the multiple winners during the last 15 years. It’s difficult to break the rookie jinx, as few jockeys or trainers perform well in their Derby debut. In the last 32 years, only two riders have been able to win the Derby in a debut Derby ride.

POST POSITION - We go to press before the draw, which is Wednesday. Note: posts 12 to 21 are a combined 5 for 122 in previous runnings. A bigger knock is if one of the speed horses draw post 12 or higher.

WEATHER - At press time, early weather reports call for overcast skies on Saturday morning but clouds should clear up by Derby post time with temperatures in the upper 70s.

OTHER - A gelding hasn’t won the Derby since 1929. A gelding usually takes longer to mature. Balto Star has been gelded.

FINALLY - Churchill Downs is a unique track that many horses do not take to. As such, it’s key to follow the morning workouts at Churchill in the weeks leading up to the Derby. Most Derby winners worked at least twice over the Churchill strip with many posting one or more bullets.

Synopsis

DOLLAR BILL - Won over track in slop last year and captured the Risen Star in seasonal debut at Fair Grounds. Beaten favorite in last two. Almost fell down in Louisiana Derby and lacked rally over speed favoring Keeneland in the Blue Grass. Has the running style to win this Derby. Although unlikely, moves up on off track. Without Lukas in here, student Dallas Stewart would be nice touch. My top choice!

MONARCHOS - This has been my choice since the beginning of the year but did he peak too soon? Florida Derby impresario finished second over a speed favoring Aqueduct oval in Wood Memorial. Running style fits and has a much better pace to set up here and has been working well over the oval. Would not surprise me. Will also use on top.

POINT GIVEN - The horse to beat. Likes the track - just missed in BC Juvenile. Appears to have all the tools necessary to be draped with the blanket along with speed and agility. Is bred for the distance and can run from far back. Baffert has won Derby twice - Stevens three times. The lack of value shies me away from using him on top but I have to use in exotics. The last horse to win the Derby off two preps at 3 was Sunny’s Halo in 1983, and Jet Pilot in ’47 before that, but the trend clearly is toward more lightly raced horses.

THUNDER BLITZ - Will be a nice price. Winner of the Flamingo (by 6¾- lengths), has been training brilliantly of late. Beaten by 8½ lengths by Monarchos in Gulfstream allowance. Stronach/Orseno were last to beat Point Given with Macho Uno.

A P VALENTINE - It is not hard for me to imagine Nicky Z in the winner’s circle. It will not be the first time that the wool has been pulled over our eyes. Beat the favorite in last year’s Champagne, which sparked a $15 million sale to Tabor/Coolmore for stud duty. However, this colt is just not what he used to be. Has to improve substantially.

MILLENNIUM WIND - No mare has ever produced two Derby winners but deceased Bali Babe could as Wind is ½ brother to 1999 winner Charismatic. Second to Point Given last fall in Hollywood Futurity in his second career start and then came back to win Santa Catalina. Has had some minor physical problems lately. "Sheet" players loved the 5¼ length wire-to-wire Blue Grass win (strong speed favoring Keeneland) but could be "bounce" candidate after such extraordinary race in last?

BALTO STAR - Two huge knocks - speed and gelding. Won Spiral S by 123/4 lengths and Arkansas Derby in the slop but did not beat any of my contenders. Trained by another Lukas protégé - Todd Pletcher.

FIFTY STARS - Louisiana Derby winner is a stone closer who will be a huge price if you’re looking for a long shot to fill out the trifecta and superfecta. Had a dream trip in the Louisiana Derby, and trainer Steve Asmussen says he simply was "flat" when he was second in the Lone Star Derby.

CONGAREE - Only one race as 2-year-old. Lived up to Baffert’s hype by beating Monarchos in Wood Memorial in only his fourth start. He figures to be up near pace. The largest field he’s faced this year is seven. The last horse to win the Derby in his fifth start was Exterminator in 1918.

SONGANDAPRAYER - My sentimental choice. Fountain of Youth winner has lots of class, but how far can he go? Trainer is confident the Blue Grass runner-up will rate kindly off a fast pace, which he’ll have to do to have any shot here. The fact that jockey Edgar Prado opted for stretch-running Flamingo winner Thunder Blitz is knock, though Prado rides a lot for the Thunder Blitz connections. Had one of the best works last week.

TALK IS MONEY - The $1.8 million yearling won his first two starts last winter, then was drilled in the Fountain of Youth and Florida Derby. He led most of the way before weakening to second in the four-horse Tesio. But he did get his career-best Beyer speed figure (101) that day. Would be the longest shot in the race if not for Tincin.

INVISIBLE INK - Looked to be trainer Pletcher’s top rated prospect in February, when the son of 1995 Derby and Belmont winner Thunder Gulch was coming off three straight wins. Third in Florida Derby didn’t diminish his stature while caught in traffic and checked sharply at the quarter pole. Fourth-place Blue Grass (by 8½ lengths) means he’ll be a huge price.

EXPRESS TOUR - Richest horse in the field after winning the $2 million UAE Derby, sponsored by his owners, the Maktoum family’s Godolphin Racing. Never been worse than second, but three of his wins came in Florida Stallion Stakes company. The last Derby winner to prevail off only one start at age 3 was Bold Venture in 1936. He is likely to be stalking the speed. The last horse to win the Derby without racing in April was Needles in 1956.

JAMAICAN RUM - Longshot will come from out of the clouds. Gray Cal-bred came from 11 lengths out of it to finish third by 3¾ lengths to Point Given in the San Felipe, then closed from much farther back in the slop to finish second by 4½ lengths to Balto Star in the Arkansas Derby.

KEATS - "Iffy" starter. Won Lexington in wire-to-wire fashion, but given all the speed in here, he’d be up against it. Classic "bounce" candidate off last.

ARCTIC BOY - Late entry; maiden winner; 2nd - Rebel.

STARTAC - Late entry. Failed against lesser; looks like turfer.

TINCIN - I would rather save my breath to cool my soup than spend ink on this entrant.