2012 Kentucky Derby – Handicapping the Field

The anticipation for the 138th running of the Kentucky Derby has exceeded the last two or three additions because, you know, the horses actually seem good this year. The results of the five Grade 1, nine-furlong, Derby preps featured not a single winner above 8-1 (vs 4 of 5 in 2011, 2 at >25-1) and the favorites completed the exacta in 4 of them. This gives the impression, at least, of a very formful crop of racehorses, perhaps the best since 2007 when Street Sense, Hard Spun and Curlin completed the Derby trifecta. This year, a few top horses appear a cut above the rest based on pedigree for 10 furlongs and good current form. What’s great about the Derby is that those top horses will still offer value, when 50-60% of runners are mainly there for their connections to enjoy the experience as the owner of a Kentucky Derby starter. (And that’s not a bad thing – in fact, it’s great news for handicappers.)

This year, I’ve been paying more attention to pedigrees and the ability of certain runners to get the Kentucky Derby distance. I’ve also looked here at the Derby results of some of the more popular American pedigrees and found surprising results. This has led me to a few observations and strategies based on pedigree:

1)      80% of the field shares 1 of 3 most common ancestors: A.P. Indy, Storm Cat, or Mr. Prospector. Neither the A.P Indy nor Storm Cat lines have a Derby winner, but their progeny have been among the most heavily bet

2)      Across bloodlines, sires who have had classic success for themselves and/or their progeny are at a premium. No runner has a sire who has a Derby winner, but some are closer to the source of classic success than others.

3)      A Derby-winning pedigree is one thing, Derby-placing another. 2nd thru 5th bring a lot of horses into play; a lot can happen in a 20-horse race.

I’m dividing the field into 4 tiers, based on how and how much I want to play them on the 1st Saturday in May.

Tier 1 – These horses I’ll play to win, in my largest exactas, on top of most vertical exotics (tris/supers), and as “A”s in the few pick-Ns I play. (Horses in order of who I like to win, but odds will determine my final plays)

1)      I’ll Have Another (by Flower Alley) [Mr. P Line] – The Santa Anita Derby winner is coming in a bit under-the-radar, and I couldn’t be happier. He outran a game Creative Cause, who by all indications will have lower odds come Derby day. His sire, Flower Alley, is a classic winner (Travers, 10f) and BCC runner-up and the best son at stud of Distorted Humor. DH’s top 3 earners (Drosselmeyer, Funny Cide, and Flower Alley) are all classic winners at 3 and the first two have wins at Churchill at 10f. As for the bottom half of the pedigree, I like DRF’s Marcus Hersh’s tweet: “Names on bottom of I’ll Have Another’s pedigree: Pleasant Colony, Nijinsky, Stage Door Johnny, Sea-Bird. That’s 1 1/4 mile firepower.”

Of my Tier 1 horses, I expect IHA to have the best odds of the 3, hopefully in excess of 10-1. At higher odds, I’ll probably weight my win plays more heavily. Fair Odds: 5-1

2)      Bodemeister (by Empire Maker) [Mr. P Line] – I actually like Bodemeister a bit more than IHA to hit the board, though I weight IHA’s chances to win slightly higher. The “no races as a 2YO” is a tough angle to beat, but if Bode’s maiden 2nd were 17 days earlier, would he be a better horse for the Derby? He has four starts this year, most in the field, and his Arkansas Derby victory reminded me of Afleet Alex and Curlin, all of which I saw live. Those champs were the best colts of their crops, and I think Bode (barring injury) will end up the best of this, but they only managed KY Derby 3rds.

I do not think Bodemeister’s pedigree could be any better for the Derby. Empire Maker has a Belmont to his name and his own sire, Unbridled, has gotten winners of each TC race. I expect Bode to go off as the favorite at around 4- or 5-1, based on his AR Derby win and connections (Zayat, Baffert). I don’t love that price to win, but he’s my “must-play” for exotic tickets. Fair-Odds: 6-1

3)      Union Rags (by Dixie Union) [N Dancer Line – not thru Storm Cat] – Union Rags is my “Keyser Soze” horse for the Derby. In the movie The Usual Suspects, Kevin Spacey’s character says “[Gabriel Byrne’s character] always said, ‘I don’t believe in God, but I’m afraid of him.’ Well I believe in God, and the only thing that scares me is Keyser Soze.” On Union Rags, I’m a cross of the two – I believe in God, I don’t believe in Union Rags, but I am afraid of him. Rags reminds me of Big Brown, the only Derby winner I saw in person. He made this huge move around the final turn at Churchill – unlike any I’d seen before. Despite being the favorite, many doubted that he’d get the distance, as BB’s sire Boundary best runners were sprinters and milers. On that day in 2008, it all worked (and BB was nowhere on my ticket).

Union Rags is a big colt, like Big Brown was, and makes him capable of covering ground like few others in the race, especially at the end. Dixie Union, like Boundary, has mostly got sprinter/miler types, but has had few runners in the classics. Both are in the Northern Dancer line that doesn’t run through Storm Cat, and not subject to that particular penalty in my handicapping.

The main reason I don’t believe in Union Rags is that I think he’ll be overbet as the favorite or second choice, in the 5-1 range. Still, I just can’t help but picture Big Brown’s big outside move with Union Rags’ blaze. Post position will be key, and I’ll be willing to play UR at higher odds. Fair Odds: 7-1

Tier 2 – These horses that I cannot exclude from consideration to win (but won’t bet) and rate highly to hit the board in exactas, tris and supers. They’d be “B”s in pick-Ns

4)      Take Charge Indy (by A.P. Indy) [A.P. Indy Line] – If an A.P. Indy line horse is going to win the Derby, I’m going to drink from the stamina fountain, not downstream. TCI may be the last son of A.P. Indy to run in the Derby, and I rate his chances to win higher than his predecessors. My main reason is his jockey, Calvin Borel, winner of 3 of the last 5 Kentucky Derbies. Many consider his win on Mine that Bird in 2009 fluky, but sons of Birdstone (a Belmont winner himself) won 3 of 4 3yo Classics that year. Street Sense and Super Saver both had classic winning pedigrees. Twice the Appeal, not so much. The point’s this: a horse with stamina needs to conserve energy in a classic race to deploy a winning move, which invariably means saving ground and avoiding trouble. There are none better than Calvin Borel at doing that, and that could put Take Charge Indy in the winner’s circle.

TCI is a Tier 1.5 horse for me – I just don’t see him offering value in the win pool because of Borel. (Twice the Appeal was 8-1, what’s a Florida Derby winner going to be?) He could go off the favorite, or at 12-1. I like him at the latter price to win, but don’t hope to get it. He’ll see play in a fair number of my exactas, however. Fair Odds: 9-1

5)      Creative Cause (by Giant’s Causeway) [Storm Cat Line] – Creative Cause has never finished off the board in 3 starts and has finished ahead of 1/3rd of this field in one race or another, with the exception of Union Rags and Hansen. I figure, if the Storm Cat line is going to get off the Derby schneid, it will be thru a son of Giant’s Causeway, who famously lost to Tiznow in the BC Classic and boasts a field-best sire AWD of 8.4f. CC’s dam is a multiple stakeswinner as well. Humble connections add to the appeal.

Creative Cause was a nose worse than I’ll Have Another at Santa Anita but figures to be 2/3rd  his odds. Still, I cannot dismiss his chances especially underneath. Fair Odds: 12-1

6)      Gemologist (by Tiznow) [In Reality Line] – Everything about Gemologist screams Derby winner. Undefeated, 2-2 Churchill, Pletcher/Winstar, Tiznow. Those screams should be loud enough to get Gemologist bet down to 6-1 or better and a Top 3 choice. Personally, I do not believe Gemologist has beaten any particularly good horses (I don’t rate Alpha highly). Regardless, the connections must be respected and the horse finds ways to win. Fair Odds: 12-1

Tier 3 – These horses I’ll include in the bottom of tris and supers to improve payouts. Most of these have 8f or 9f pedigrees, but I respect their connections enough to believe they’ll have a sharp horse on Derby Day.

7)      El Padrino (by Pulpit) [A.P. Indy Line] – El Padrino has been racing against good competition for awhile, so he has some seasoning. I consider Pulpit the best son of A.P. Indy at stud and Giant’s Causeway is his damsire. He has the top BRIS speed fig in the race, won over Take Charge Indy in January. Will give a huge bump up if the track is anything but Dry and Fast. Fair Odds: 15-1

8)      Sabercat (by Bluegrass Cat) [Storm Cat Line] – Not much to love about his 2012 racing but it’s clear Asmussen has pointed him to peak on Derby day. His AR Derby 3rd form won’t get it done here, and I have the normal Storm Cat pedigree reservations. I just don’t see him overbet the way others will be, and he could sneak into a nice trifecta. If he’s 30-1+, I’ll have some on him to win. Fair Odds: 18-1

9)      Hansen (by Tapit) [A.P. Indy Line] – Outside of needing a new wireless provider, this guy’s connections have done little wrong with the field’s richest earner. His Blue Grass was fine – he didn’t need to win, and his BC Juvenile win to Bluegrass 2nd to Derby route has been covered by Street Sense just five years ago. I think Tapit as a sire, however, trades off stamina for precociousness atypical of A.P. Indy line runners. Therefore, Hansen’s a huge underlay for me, even if he sets a decent pace. Fair Odds: 20-1

10)   Dullahan (by Even the Score) [ Mr. P Line] – This guy will get a lot of attention since he’s a half-brother to Mine that Bird on the same cross through a grandson of Unbridled. No Borel this time, though Kent Desormeaux has a recent Derby score with Big Brown. Still, on dirt, I’d rather play an also-ran from the Bluegrass than the winner, if for no other reason than odds. Fair Odds: 20-1

11)   Mark Valeski (by Proud Citizen) [ Mr. P Line] – He gave El Padrino all he wanted in the Risen Star and has competed at the highest level since his maiden race(where he lost to Union Rags). The Louisiana Derby was fluky and I accept his connections explanation of an equipment issue. Working well for Larry Jones who has placed Derby runners before. Overlay potential. Fair Odds: 25-1

12)   Daddy Nose Best (by Scat Daddy) [ Storm Cat Line] – I include him here because he’s the steam and/or wiseguy horse for this Derby, and that matters. Beat decent at Sunland, Asmussen could easily have him ready to pop. Scat Daddy, a son of Johannesburg, has overachieved as a sire thus far. I see a pedigree reality check for this guy and the Long Legs variety. Including on steam alone, but not a lot of exposure. Fair Odds: 25-1

Tier 4 – If there were $0.10 minimum supers on Derby, I might include 2 or 3 of these horses (odds-dependent) on the bottom of a superfecta. With $1 minimum supers on Derby Day, I won’t be playing these guys. If my Derby syndicate hits the ALL-button on a wager, I’ll have some exposure at long odds.

13)   Alpha (by Bernadini) [A.P. Indy Line] – Alpha finished 2nd to Gemologist in the Wood, but has a more aggravated case of “hasn’t beaten anybody” than Gemologist does. Bernadini has sired a classic winner in Stay Thirsty (Travers) but that was in 2011, against the weakest 3yo crop in a long time. He’ll be a big underlay here. Fair Odds: 25-1

14)   Trinniberg (by Teuflesberg) [Storm Cat Line] – I like this horse and I hope his connections are not doing him wrong by throwing him in here. He’s a sprinting son of a sprinter who will certainly be in front at first call. It’s just as likely he’ll be last at last call, but if he is unpressured for the first half-mile, there may be enough left in the tank to hold off 16 horses. Fair Odds: 30-1

15)   Prospective (by Malibu Moon) [A.P. Indy Line] – If this guy wins, I’ll take solace having split a $5 future ticket on him at 200-1. I don’t think he has the speed to contend against these, but if the race breaks down in some fashion (several leaders chasing torrid pace), he could pass tiring horses for a spot. Fair Odds: 35-1

16)   Went the Day Well (by Proud Citizen) [Mr. P Line] – This fellow’s connections won the Derby last year following an identical path thru the Turfway Spiral Stakes. He hasn’t the 10f pedigree that Animal Kingdom had, however, and I think he’s outclassed here. Fair Odds: 35-1

17)   Daddy Long Legs (by Scat Daddy) [ Storm Cat Line] – Daddy Nose Best analysis – one weak dirt start – traveling from Dubai = Long price.  Good connections though. Fair Odds: 40-1

18)   Liaison (by Indian Charlie) [Caro Line?] – No good starts in 2012, graded earnings came on Cushion Track. Distance issues from sire (remember the ‘Mo). Rumored that Baffert is starting him to keep others out, I just can’t imagine who he’s afraid of. Fair Odds: 50-1

19)   Done Talking (by Broken Vow) [Mr. P Line] – Illinois Derby winner has a more likable Derby pedigree than several in here, but looks slower than most. Fair Odds: 50-1

20)   Rousing Sermon (by Lucky Pulpit) [A.P. Indy Line] – Consistent sort that has done little on dirt. Here for the party, I think. Fair Odds: 50-1

-Horses outside of contention based on Graded Stakes earning, but on AE list if one of top 20 scratched before draw

21)   Optimizer (by English Channel) [Mr.P Line] – Hated him in the Arkansas Derby at low odds, can’t believe he’s on the cusp of making it in. D. Wayne Lukas has lost his fastball in recent years but the sport’s richer for his having a horse in the dance. I actually love the distance pedigree here and could easily see him in the top 5 horses if the pace breaks down. Fair Odds: 35-1

22)   Castaway (by Street Sense) [Mr. P Line] – This guy needs two more defections to make the Derby, but if he does, I like his chances at a fair price. Street Sense is the only Derby-winning sire represented in the field. I wish Baffert had kept Castaway at Oaklawn Park with Secret Circle; a couple of 3rds would have locked him in here. I’ll play him at 40-1+. Fair Odds: 30-1