The Kentucky Derby draws near
Sometimes handicapping a race of the enormity of the Kentucky Derby can be an overwhelming task, even for seasoned professionals. The large field and the weather variables can make the already difficult project of finding a winner seem nearly impossible.
As a professional handicapper, when in doubt I tend to fall back to a set of handicapping rules. Though there is nothing in the world that can prove you wrong in under two minutes quite like a racehorse, these rules can be a solid foundation.
By following my set of rules, I have managed to firmly settle on a winner that meets all of my criteria. Read on to find out who that horse is!
Palace Malice last won in August of 2012
This year, the field of the Kentucky Derby was decided by a points system. In many of the stakes races for three-year-olds, points were awarded to fourth place with the thought that the horses that accumulated the most points would comprise the field.
Some horses this year managed to earn their berth in the Kentucky Derby by gaining enough points by finishing second, third and fourth in their prep races without actually winning a race in 2013. While some of these horses have strong records as juveniles with several wins to their credit, a lot can change between two years old and three years old in Thoroughbreds.
Many of the top juveniles are not as competitive at three because at two they were developmentally superior to their competition, and eventually the competition caught up. If a horse has not proven at this point that their form as a two-year-old translated to three, they get tossed.
Eliminate: No. 4 Golden Soul, No. 5 Normandy Invasion, No. 6 Mylute, No. 10 Palace Malice, No. 18 Frac Daddy
Frac Daddy has only one victory to his credit
In horse racing, there are types of races that are conditioned in which horses run against competition with similar accomplishments.
For example, horses that have only won their maiden race can run against competition that has never won two races as well. The competition is often softer than stakes races, and a horse can develop and go through their conditions.
Many top horses skip through conditioned races and go straight to stakes company off their maiden. Many earn their second win doing just that. The Kentucky Derby is not the race where that happens.
One of my strictest rules handicapping the Kentucky Derby is to eliminate a horse that is still eligible for a non-winners of two races condition. Even a horse that has held his own against top stakes company still needs to prove that they can win multiple races, not just be in the picture.
Eliminate: No. 4 Golden Soul, No. 5 Normandy Invasion, No. 10 Palace Malice, No. 18 Frac Daddy
Charming Kitten's best races have come on turf
In horse racing, there are three separate surfaces that horses compete over. Some horses, generally those with higher action and wider, flatter feet, prefer grass. Many times those horses also can translate that form to synthetic surfaces.
However, the Kentucky Derby is run on conventional, old-fashioned dirt. Even if a horse can train well over dirt, racing over it can be a completely different experience, and some horses simply cannot translate their form from turf or synthetics to dirt.
Some horses are triple threats and can be competitive on all three, but going into the Kentucky Derby, you want to see a horse that has won on dirt. This is not the time to be trying something for the first time.
Eliminate: No. 11 Lines of Battle, No. 15 Charming Kitten, No. 19 Java's War
The grueling distance of a mile and a quarter is farther than all of these horses have gone in their careers, and it is longer than many of them will ever race again.
Many talented, quality horses will hit a wall in mid-stretch in the Kentucky Derby, and it becomes crucial to find a horse with the stamina to push past their rivals and finish strongly. A lot can be gained from studying a horse's pedigree, running style and physical build to determine whether or not they are capable of getting the distance.
Some key distance influences to look for in the pedigrees of the contenders are familiar names like A.P. Indy, Unbridled and Awesome Again.
Horses with distance limitations in their pedigree should be considered with caution. It is not impossible to outrun your pedigree, but it does add another degree of difficulty. The following horses have demonstrated they may be reaching their limit.
Eliminate: No. 8 Goldencents, No. 12 Itsmyluckyday, No. 13 Falling Sky
Overanalyze earned his career best Beyer as a juvenile
Beyer speed figures have been around since the '70s and have become a popular way to judge a horse's performance while taking into account track variables. Each horse that runs a race is assigned a Beyer Speed Figure, and elite stakes horses frequently get triple-digit Beyers.
Beyers can be a useful tool, especially to find patterns in a horse's performances. In some instances, horses will significantly regress after an unusually high Beyer, and that is called a "bounce."
With only a select few in this crop to have earned triple-digit Beyers this year (Goldencents, Itsmyluckyday and Verrazano), the bar to eliminate others was to cull anyone who has not at least cracked a 90 Beyer in their three-year-old year.
Eliminate: No. 4 Golden Soul, No. 7 Giant Finish, No. 9 Overanalyze, No. 15 Charming Kitten, No. 18 Frac Daddy
Will Take Charge was sixth over a sloppy track
With the foreboding forecast of rain looming at Churchill Downs, Mother Nature could be throwing a curveball into everyone's handicapping. With the possibility of a wet track, it is better to be prepared than to be stuck doing 11th-hour cramming and realizing that the horse you were all-in on has no shot over an off track.
Some horses at this point have had the opportunity to compete over an off track, and some, like Palace Malice, have proven they can handle one. Others have proven that they simply cannot get over it very well.
The third part of the off-track equation goes back to pedigree. While there are some horses that have the depth and stamina in their pedigree to run all day, there are certain sire lines that are known for producing horses that can handle sloppy going. Having this information in your arsenal really helps.
Some prominent off-track sire lines displayed in this year's Derby are Tapit, Smart Strike, Awesome Again and El Prado. Though Charming Kitten is a massive long shot, he has tremendous off-track influence both in his sire's side and through his dam sire, Wild Again, as well.
Eliminate: No. 7 Giant Finish, No. 17 Will Take Charge
Vyjack will have to overcome adversity to win from the outside
The luck of the post-position draw can be brutal. For some horses, they essentially lose all chances the moment they are assigned to certain spots.
For example, in the 2010 Kentucky Derby, Lookin at Lucky was the huge standout. His chance was all but gone when he drew the rail. Was he the best horse of that group? Most definitely.
In 2008, Big Brown drew the undesirable outside post position. He went on to demolish the field in awe-inspiring fashion.
The severity of the post-position draw really depends on the horse. For some, it becomes more of a problem than it would for others. In this field, I eliminated the inside and outside post positions because it seemed like too much to overcome for those horses.
Black Onyx, scheduled to break from the rail, scratched on Friday morning. Oxbow will still break from the No. 2 hole but will have slightly more space to get to the rail, making his inside post easier to swallow.
On the outside, however, Vyjack may have some real issues. This horse is a notorious handful, and the deafening crowd of the fans as he waits for all of his rivals to load may be too much for him to keep his nerves and behavior in check.
He was a horse I considered a big threat up until the draw.
Eliminate: No. 1 Black Onyx, No. 20 Vyjack
Palace Malice with blinkers on
If it isn't broken, don't try to fix it.
This has been my approach going into major races. If a horse has run well enough to get into the race, something is going well. While a change of equipment is not a bad thing, the Kentucky Derby has never struck me as the race to experiment in.
It is always worth looking at what a horse did prior, particularly when they ran their best races. Why make a change?
There can be a tactical advantage with the addition of blinkers for the first time, and horses often will show more speed, but that experiment can also backfire. Horses are animals with minds of their own, not machines, and some react better to change than others.
Eliminate: No. 10 Palace Malice
Verrazano did not debut until he was three years old
There are certain historical trends that are difficult to overcome. For over a century, there has not been a horse that has won the Kentucky Derby that has not raced as a juvenile. Last year, Bodemeister came awfully close but was unable to get the job done.
Why is it so important to have competed as a two-year-old? There is not a concrete answer, but there seems to be a foundation and experience that is gained by starting at two that is invaluable at this point of the year.
Many horses that began their career last year at this point have had more opportunities to become battle tested and overcome any potential adversity that can occur during a race. Experience is everything.
Eliminate: No. 14 Verrazano
Throughout the week, I have maintained my top three contenders. While there can be faults found with them, they fit my criteria.
Orb is my top selection and truly the horse of this group that meets all of my demands. He has won multiple races this year, including a major stakes race on dirt.
He has the pedigree to excel at longer distances, even over an off track. He has been expertly developed by his trainer Shug McGaughey, and while his juvenile season was not wildly successful, he gained valuable experience in those starts.
Like Orb, Revolutionary did take several attempts to break his maiden, but once he figured it out, he has been a force to be reckoned with. He has gotten bumped around, had bad breaks and has proven he can overcome them.
In addition, he is a multiple stakes winner with strong Beyer Speed Figures and is bred to love an off track and additional distance. He is the one horse who I wouldn't be surprised to see win.
And finally, a long shot in Oxbow. Though he does not lack in experience with nine starts under his belt, his career has not been remarkable. Yet he somehow managed to abide by my rules.
He passed every criteria, and though his post position is not ideal, he may have finally gotten a little racing luck with the scratch of Black Onyx.