Parity makes for wide open Kentucky Derby

Apr 28, 2009 5:10 PM
by David Stratton |

This year’s Kentucky Derby is shaping up to be one of the most contentious in recent history with several top horses easily capable of hitting the wire first.

Before taking a closer look at the contenders, it would be helpful to explore some of the trends that handicappers often follow, with nearly a religious dedication.

For instance, many analysts like to cite post position, or number of races or time between races as criteria for determining whether a horse is a viable contender.

However, over the past few years we’ve seen many so-called trends fall by the wayside. For example, there was one a time you couldn’t bet a gelding in the Derby, but Funny Cide shattered that myth in 2003.

Also, a horse with a layoff longer than five weeks was considered "out of form" and not playable, and that was the case for 50 years, but Barbaro in 2006 proved to be the exception to that rule.

The following year, Street Sense became the first Breeders’ Cup Juvenile winner to ever win the Derby and, in the process, put to rest another "100 percent trend."

Anyway, you get the picture: you can’t, in this era, routinely toss out a horse because of a so-called trend. What this means for Saturday’s race is don’t automatically toss a horse in the No. 20 post position (there have been three winners from that spot – the same number as from the 11th post position).

Also, don’t rely too heavily on the three-digit Beyer speed ratings as the end-all yardstick of a horse’s ability.

Look back at the 2005 Derby when the "slower" horses were supposed to be no match for "top" runners with the highest Beyer Speed Ratings: Bellamy Road (120 Beyer), Afleet Alex (108), Bandini (103), Greeley’s Galaxy (106) and High Limit (105), to name a few.

Well, all those high-octane contenders ran fairly evenly, but when the charge for the wire was on, it was the "slow-footed" Giacomo who got there first, at a cool 50-1.

There might be a somewhat same scenario emerging this year. There are a few horses with top speed ratings getting most of the attention, while some legitimate contenders are flying under the radar.

One of the ways to clarify a horse’s running ability is by examining their times for the final 3 furlongs in a major (11/8 mile) prep race before the Derby.

These horses all finished first or second in their prep races (Blue Grass, Santa Anita Derby, Wood and Arkansas Derby), and ran the final 3 furlongs in less than 37 seconds.

As noted earlier, this year’s Derby is particularly contentious, and that’s reflected in these final 3/8 mile times. Surprisingly, there are about 13 horses entered that qualify under this criterion, about double what you would find in previous races.

The horses that qualify include: Chocolate Candy, Desert Party, Dunkirk, Flying Private, General Quarters, Hold Me Back, I Want Revenge, Musket Man, Papa Clem, Pioneerof the Nile, Regal Ransom and Win Willy.

From these horses – obviously, some of the best and most successful horses in the field – one stands out for several reasons.

That one is Hold Me Back. Not only did he run the qualifying time in the Blue Grass Stakes (while finishing second to General Quarters), he ran it in his previous race, the Land’s End, which he won.

None of the other contenders did it twice. This showed that his first big run wasn’t a fluke, and that he was capable of coming back.

Hold Me Back also looked strong in the Blue Grass, circling the field six-wide and coming up short, though he probably could have run down General Quarters if he were pushed.

Finally, there was a question about Hold Me Back running on dirt, but his workouts this week at Churchill Downs seem to indicate he can handle the footing.

For those reasons, Hold Me Back is the pick here to win the Derby, with Pioneerof the Nile and I Want Revenge completing the trifecta.

Kentucky Derby Early odds
I Want Revenge
Pioneerof the Nile
Friesan Fire
Chocolate Candy
Hold Me Back
Desert Party
Papa Clem
Regal Ransom
General Quarters
Musket Man
Win Willy
West Side Bernie
Square Eddie
Mr. Hot Stuff
Summer Bird
Join in the Dance
Mine That Bird
Flying Private

Question? Comment? E-mail me at: David Stratton