With a 20 horse field, the Kentucky Derby is a crap shoot to even the most seasoned handicapper. To add to the difficulty, consider that they are all three year olds running a distance they have not yet run. The human equivalent might be to put 20 teenagers on the Throgs Neck Bridge in rush hour traffic, after graduating from permit to license. Yet to spite all that uncertainty, every year there seems to be an element of surprise in the publics reaction to the outcome. Then there are just out right shockers.
Who could forget Tom Durkins reaction when he saw Mine That Bird come up on the rail to score at 50-1, Detroit Piston announcer John Mason sounded less shocked when he saw Ron Artest run up into the stands. The 05′ Derby saw 50-1 shot; Giacomo get up at the wire to defeat Closing Argument at 71-1. Anyone smart enough to see that was rewarded with $133K for the effort. Even the now great Animal Kingdom crossed the wire in relative obscurity when he won the 2011 Derby. In fact the only derby in recent memory that was true to form was in 07′, when Street Sense, Hard Spun, and Curlin completed the trifecta, all at odds under 8-1.
What comes as a greater surprise, are the ones who where unbeatable beasts in the prep season, and don’t run a lick in the Derby. Every year there are a handful of horses that received specific attention throughout the Derby prep season, horses that were in all the battles, had tons of talent, and were working out well up to that week. These are the horses when sifting through the past performances, your betting strategy is to include them no matter what, simply because they seem better then the rest of the field. But after the race has been run and you’re looking through your tickets, you realize that horse never even got a call. As it turns out, they broke poorly, fell back to sixteenth and got caught up starring at the ‘pageantry’ (aka big distracting hats) around the club house turn, and never picked up his feet. Of course this could happen, it happens all the time in sports, big player gets to the big dance and for two hours is a deer in the headlights. There have been countless hours of sports radio dedicated to solving that phenomenon.
This year however has a different feel, it seems that there really is no three horse combination that is going to shock anyone. That’s not saying that Derby 139 is without talent, it just may be that some talent may have already peaked in form, while those who will be taking less money at the windows are still sitting on their biggest race yet.
In fact it looks like most of the winners coming out of the last round of prep races are either getting slower as the distances increase, or ran against very weak fields.
Take for instance probable Derby favorite Verrazano, who may have peaked when running in an allowance race at Gulfstream Park in January. In that race he drew off handily to win by 16 lengths. To his credit he followed it up with two professional wins in the Tampa Bay Derby, and the Wood Memorial, and will go into the Derby undefeated. However the Wood Memorial was a dawdling 1:50.27, albeit on a slow tiring track. But for what its worth Verrazano will be a horse to try and beat.
Florida Derby winner Orb, impressed by closing and winning all his races at Gulfstream Park, which is notorious for front running speed types. However with a final time of 1:50.87, an argument could be made that he was the best of a mediocre group that day. Consider that three year old filly, Dreaming of Julia ran the same distance on that day in the Gulfstream Park Oaks in an astounding 1:48.97.
On that same day over at Fairgrounds in Louisiana, Revolutionary beat 13 other horses in the Louisiana Derby going, 1:50.28. Two weeks later Overanalyze won the Arkansas Derby on a fast track in a slow time of 1:51.94. Actually there was one strong final prep race, and that was at Santa Anita Park by Goldencents, who ran a legit 1:48.76 earning a 105 Beyer Speed Figure.
In addition, the new points system that has been implemented this year, has resulted in changing the pace dynamics of the race. No longer can precocious two year olds secure a run for the roses by wiring a field in a lucrative two year old race. This year the qualifications were by points earned in the bigger prep races closer to the Derby. More often than not the better horses as two years old have not learned to rate off a fast pace, and with the old earnings system too many speed types who shouldn’t have been in the Derby to begin with, were entered by overzealous owners caught up in “Derby Fever”.
Judging from these factors, it seems that this years, Kentucky Derby may produce either the slowest derby in recent memory, or possibly a relative unknown will show up ready to run a ‘big one’ as they say.