Over the years we’ve seen some trends hold up very well in the Kentucky Derby, while others haven’t been nearly as strong in recent years. Here’s a look at some of the Kentucky Derby betting trends to help you in your handicapping for Saturday’s big race:
Fewer than six career races
This was once a rock-solid trend. Between 1933 and 2007 only three horses had won with less than six career races, and all of those horses had run five times.
It was widely believed that that kind of experience was required to develop the base of experience and endurance needed to win the toughest race a three year old will ever run.
That trend has come under attack recently, though.
In 2008 Big Brown won after just three previous career starts. Last year Animal Kingdom had run only four times before his big win. Those two wins in the last four years have challenged the potency of this trend, and made it much harder to trust.
This year will also provide plenty of opportunities for the trend to be roughed up — or destroyed entirely. Potential favorite Bodemeister has run only four times. Five other likely runners — Gemologist, I’ll Have Another, Daddy Long Legs, Went the Day Well, and Mark Valeski — have each run only five times.
Given the way that training horses is changing, this trend will likely be nothing but a memory in the future — even if it holds up this year.
No races as a two-year old
This is going to be the most publicized trend heading into this race — no horse since Apollo in 1882 has won the Kentucky Derby without having raced at least once as a two year old. There have been 56 runners since 1944 that have challenged history in this way. Just twice — in 1948 and 1994 — have they come as close as second place.
A horse that hasn’t run at two typically hasn’t seen enough and faced enough adversity to be ready for the Derby. They also likely lack maturity — the typical cause for the delayed start to their career.
Horses can develop very well later in the year — the great Curlin was unraced at two and took off after his third-place Derby finish. It has effectively not yet been shown that a horse can be ready for the challenge of the first Saturday in May.
Looking to fly in the face of that convention will be Bodemeister. The stunning winner of the Arkansas Derby has a good shot at being the Kentucky derby favorite. He’s an explosive frontrunner, and unquestionably the fastest member of this class. Can he do what so many before him have been unable to?
Fewer than three races as a three year old
This is another trend that is already on shaky ground thanks to recent history. Between 1937 and 2007 we had seen just six horses with fewer than three races at three years old win the Derby. Again, it seemed like fewer races just didn’t give the depth of experience and fitness required to win.
The trend has dramatically reversed recently, though. Each of the last four winners — Big Brown, Mine That Bird, Super Saver, and Animal Kingdom — had only run twice at two.
This year there are a whopping nine horses that have only run twice. Those are Union Rags, Gemologist, Dullahan, I’ll Have Another, Take Charge Indy, Daddy Nose Best, Done Talking, Sabercat, and Trinniberg. Taking it a step further, Daddy Long Legs has run only once this calendar year.
Wood Memorial winner Gemologist, trained by Todd Pletcher, has run five times and won five times. If and when he enters the gate he will become the 23rd undefeated entrant in the Derby.
The success rate of those horses has run well above the success rate for typical entries — seven of the 22 runners have won. In the last decade the results have been even more impressive — five undefeated runners have turned into three Derby champions, including Smarty Jones, Barbaro and Big Brown.
Barbaro had a huge impact on how the sport was viewed by the general public and also those who cared about horse racing. He also changed the way people thought about layoffs heading into the race.
Entering his Derby in 2006, no horse since Needles in 1956 had won off a layoff of four or more weeks heading into the Kentucky Derby. It was widely believed that if a horse was off for more than three weeks he wouldn’t be ready to run on the big day.
After Barbaro proved it could be done trainers really embraced the extended rest approach. In subsequent years Big Brown, Super Saver and Animal Kingdom won off of a long rest.
This year it’s more remarkable if a horse isn’t coming off long rest than if he is — 15 of the 20 likely entrants are on at least four weeks rest, and six of the 20 haven’t run since March.
No prep race win
You’d think that it would be a bad thing if a horse hasn’t won a stakes race as a three year old before the Derby. If he can’t win a lesser race then why would you trust him in the biggest race in the world?
That logic hasn’t consistently held up, though.
Since 1980 we have seen 11 horses earn their first stakes win of the year at Churchill Downs. That means you don’t have to be scared of a horse that hasn’t won yet.
Interestingly, though, that’s not much of a factor this year. Only four likely runners — Liaison, Mark Valeski, Rousing Sermon, and Sabercat — have yet to record a victory. Optimizer and My Adonis are the two horses currently outside of the Kentucky Derby field hoping to get in, and neither has won yet this year, either.
The fact that every other horse is a winner of a graded stakes is a sign of just how deep and competitive this field is. Last year was a much weaker class of horses, and eight of those horses hadn’t crossed the line first.