2014 Kentucky Derby – Handicapping the Field

This Derby year is different from any since the start of this site in that the Derby will have one clear favorite. Handicapping often comes down to taking or trying to beat the favorite, or finding ways to get value out of the favorite. That’s why California Chrome is the “Decision” horse of this Derby, and the rest follows from there.

(One note: for my handicapping, the post-position draw and track condition are about 5-10% of the equation. I might discount a horse more drawing post 1 but not any other. Also, I believe distance considerations outweigh track conditions more in classic races, so the 20-40% chance of an off track doesn’t really factor into the Derby as much as other races. Thus, I’m comfortable that the following reasoning will hold for me throughout Derby week)

The Decision

California Chrome (Post-Time Odds Estimate: 5/2) (by Lucky Pulpit out of Not for Love mare)

 If your handicapping is limited to two factors – watching races and looking at speed figures – then California Chrome is an absolute standout. He has not been seriously challenged in winning three times this year and horses he has beaten straight up (Hoppertunity, Candy Boy and Chitu) have in turn beaten numerous other Derby contenders. He is a well-deserving favorite.

 Yet betting the Kentucky Derby often requires looking deeper into handicapping factors that would highlight a runner whose chances of winning are better than his odds indicate. On California Chrome, those deeper handicapping factors do not appeal to me. His pedigree suggests that his best distance is shorter than the 10 furlong Derby distance, all his stakes wins are in California, and he has not faced much adversity in his wins. To the last point, CC has been classier than all the speed horses he’s faced, and speedier than the class horses he’s faced. In the Derby, the frontrunners will be able to hold their speed longer than their California counterparts.

 All that said, I can’t argue that he’s the horse to beat. I think he will go off at odds of 5/2; if you think CC wins 30% of the time, these are fair if not great odds. 30% sounds about right to me, so he’s a top pick, but California Chrome winning is not the bet I want to make. I have opinions on the rest of the field that should be very different than the public’s, and these differences of opinion are what I want to put my money on.

 If I’m right on these, and California Chrome runs well, I’ll have a good day at the track.

 If I’m right on these, and California Chrome does not run well, I’ll have a great day at the track.

 If I’m wrong on these, I’ll lose (but there are no bad days at the Kentucky Derby).

 Tier 1 (Prime win candidates and key exacta/trifecta horses)

 When it comes to the Kentucky Derby, I consider myself a pedigree x performance handicapper. This means that, of horses that have shown some ability and class in the Derby preps, I want to pick horses whose pedigrees suggest success under the conditions of the Kentucky Derby. This is mainly distance aptitude but also includes finding influences that have had past Derby success. My top 3 picks have all had solid recent performances but their pedigrees suggest that their best runs remain ahead of them.

  Wicked Strong (PT Odds est: 6-1) (by Hard Spun o/o Charismatic mare) – Wicked Strong will be the sentimental favorite of this year’s Derby based on his name alone. (In lieu of long explanation, his owner’s first choice of name was Boston Strong). The Derby being a 20-horse race, there are always enough horses to ensure a fast early pace. This usually means a horse that runs faster later and is experienced at passing rivals has a very good chance of winning. Wicked Strong has the best resume of this style of runner, and his pedigree supports it. His sire Hard Spun ran 2nd in the best Derby field of the 21st century. His damsire Charismatic won the Derby, and his 2nd damsire was a world record holder for a distance longer than the Derby. I rate his fair odds at 6-1 but the sentimentality of Derby bettors may make him lower on May 3rd.

 Hoppertunity (PT Odds: 8-1) (by Any Given Saturday o/o Unaccounted For mare) – The Bob Baffert’s trainee was last seen running a few lengths behind California Chrome in the Santa Anita Derby. Hoppertunity won the Rebel Stakes at Oaklawn three weeks earlier, securing his spot in the Kentucky Derby lineup. It’s possible, even likely, that Baffert had Hopp geared down for the SA Derby with eyes on the bigger prize. He won the Rebel from off the pace, and his SA Derby 2nd came after passing horses. Hopp’s sire is Any Given Saturday and his sire is Distorted Humor, who sired Funny Cide and was the grandsire of I’ll Have Another; Hoppertunity is half-brother to top filly Executiveprivilege, sharing classic influence Danzig as a 2nd Damsire. Hopp did not race as a 2 year old, which makes him subject to the “Apollo curse”; thing is, Baffert has late-developing stars every year and his home track (Santa Anita) opens its winter meet a week before New Year’s. He aims to break the curse and Hoppertunity is his best chance since Bodemeister in 2012.

 Medal Count (PT Odds: 20-1) (by Dynaformer o/o Unbridled’s Song mare) – The main knock against Medal Count is that his best performances have thus far been on turf and Polytrack and not the dirt surface of Churchill Downs. It’s actually why I like this horse so much – he’s likely to be ignored as a turf/AW specialist. Still, this is a horse that won his first race on dirt and has trained primarily on the Churchill Downs main track. Medal Count is THE pedigree standout in this race. His sire Dynaformer was Barbaro’s sire and a tremendous distance influence besides. The Unbridled line influence is a huge indicator of Derby success, both through sire and dams, and last year’s winner Orb was out of an Unbridled mare. His third dam is by the greatest sire of the 20th century, Northern Dancer. If Medal Count can settle mid-pack, he’ll be positioned to get first run ahead of the closers.

 Tier 2 (Include with key horses in exactas/trifectas)

 Ride on Curlin (PT Odds: 12-1, b/c of Jockey Borel) (by Curlin o/o Storm Cat mare) – There are three things I like about this horse: he has improved every race, his pedigree suggests further improvement with age, and has shown ability to pass horses. Two things I don’t like: 1) He hasn’t actually won many races, which I actually think is important; and 2) He gets the jockey services of one Calvin Borel, three-time winner of the Kentucky Derby. While I think Borel gives him as good a chance for success as any jockey (but no better), the public really thinks he’s magic and will bet Ride on Curlin much below his true win odds. RoC has a great chance to inflate an exotics ticket

 Danza (PT Odds: 20-1) (by Street Boss o/o French Deputy mare) – I was surprised as anyone in attendance when this Arkansas Derby longshot won at 40-1. I’ve since gone back and watched the race and was quite impressed by the way he patiently tracked the leaders then quickly accelerated and continued to move. Todd Pletcher has been awfully quiet on this one, but he was only a nose behind two of the top 2-year-olds at Saratoga and has come back well this year. I have heard people questioning his pedigree, as his sire Street Boss was primarily a sprinter, but his damside has some more classic distance influence from French Deputy and Tanks Prospect. Plus, one thing I’ve noted about in the past about sires – sprinters sired by classic oriented sires often pass on both speed and class to their offspring. This seems to me doubly true of the Mr Prospector line; Distorted Humor, Speightstown, Elusive Quality, Midnight Lute to name a few all were sprinters/milers but have seen sons fare quite well in classic distance races. Street Boss’s sire Street Cry counts Derby winner Street Sense and all-time great mare Zenyatta among his progeny; I won’t let Danza surprise me again.

 Dance with Fate (PT Odds: 15-1) (by Two Step Salsa o/o Saint Ballado mare) – Similar to Medal Count, Dance with Fate is probably going to get pegged as a AW specialist following his Blue Grass win. He does have some dirt form (placing in Santa Anita’s Frontrunner Stakes), though his best attribute for the Derby is his late running style. I’m not sold on his pedigree, but Two Step Salsa comes from a branch of the Mr Prospector line considered more hardy than brilliant. His damsire Saint Ballado reinforces those attributes, and I expect Dance with Fate to contend late with a narrow shot at winning.

Tier 3 (3-4 spots in minimum bet trifectas, superfectas)

Chitu (PT Odds: 20-1) (by Henny Hughes o/o A.P. Indy mare) – Normally I would exclude this runner based on his sire Henny Hughes, a great grandson of Storm Cat (whose line has no Derby wins despite it’s prominence). I add Chitu for two reasons: 1) Female champion and future HOF distaffer Beholder also has HH as a sire and her staying ability really impressed me in two nine furlong performances. 2) Chitu has several distance influences on his damside including A.P. Indy and Zilzal as damsire and 2nd damsire, and his dam and 2nd dam were both distance runners on turf. Chitu will race near the front of the pack, which will lower his chances to win, but I could see him holding on at a price.

AE-Social Inclusion (PT Odds: 15-1) (by Pioneerof the Nile o/o Saint Ballado mare) – This horse has shown a lot of brilliance in his three lifetime starts but could only warrant a 3rd in the Wood Memorial. His first two wins at high speed figures means he’ll get play on Derby Day. His connections have been champing at the bit to run in the Derby and are only awaiting one or two more drops. Good pedigree for the distance with the Unbridled line crossed to Saint Ballado. Definitely a player

Commanding Curve (PT Odds: 30-1+) (by Master Command o/o Lion Hearted mare) – The other CC could be this year’s Golden Soul (2nd last year) having drawn in with recent defections. Another late runner who has shown improvement in every start, his biggest appeal will be the odds that he would contribute to any exotic bet featuring him. Sometimes you have to get lucky in the Derby for a big score, and he has the profile of one that could “blow up the tote”.

Candy Boy (PT Odds: 18-1) (by Candy Ride o/o In Excess mare) – It could be that 3rd place in California might be better than the rest of the US, but he did not prove better than Hoppertunity in the Santa Anita Derby, so I have a hard time putting him higher. Nine furlongs or less is probably his best distance, and it’s likely he also wasn’t fully cranked in the Santa Anita Derby. His trainer John Sadler is a good one and his jockey Gary Stevens has a few Derbies on his Hall of Fame resume. Prefer others.

General a Rod (PT Odds: 25-1) (by Roman Ruler o/o Dynaformer mare) – Third in the Florida Derby after a couple of seconds, this is another one who could threaten late. He has a decent pedigree for the longer distance, as Roman Ruler has sired a Belmont winner and Dynaformer has the aforementioned Derby and distance influence. I have heard his recent training has been solid if not spectacular and I’m not certain he’s top flight.

Tier 4 (Big budget players can include these on some tickets)

Uncle Sigh (PT Odds: 25-1) (by Indian Charlie o/o Pine Bluff mare) – Even though he’s been running behind others in New York, I think he has the style (near front, not the lead) and enough pedigree, especially beneath, to threaten at the top of the lane. Not one I see accelerating from there, though, but hanging on for a piece.

 Intense Holiday (PT Odds: 20-1) (by Harlan’s Holiday o/o Unbridled’s Song mare) – I really like this colt and hope he runs even enough here to take a shot at the Preakness, where I think this pedigree will be well-suited. No Storm Cat-line horse has won the Derby and I think that history is not likely to be broken here. This Pletcher trainee will have a good career, I expect, but not threaten for the Derby win.

AE-Pablo Del Monte (PT Odds: 40-1) by Giant’s Causeway o/o Bring the Heat mare) – Currently 21 in standings, will need to draw in. Was the only speed that held in the Bluegrasss Stakes, and that lists includes some higher profile horses. Giant’s Causeway is the best of the Storm Cat line for distance influence, but his progeny have not done much Derby Day.

Samraat (PT Odds: 12-1) (by Noble Causeway o/o Indian Charlie mare) – While this one’s only loss is to Wicked Strong while running 2nd in the Wood Memorial, I don’t think this one’s pedigree (Storm Cat line w few distance influences underneath) suggests going any further. I think he’ll take some significant play, however, and will go off as the day’s biggest underlay

Tapiture (PT Odds: 25-1) (by Tapit o/o Olympio mare) Think he has hit his distance limitations while running 4th in Hot Springs. Still, has shown some ability to handle adversity, but not enough to overcome a preference for a shorter distance.

Tier 5 (Only bet when the ticket says ALL)

Vinceremos (PT Odds: 35-1) (by Pioneerof the Nile o/o More than Ready mare) – Earned his way in with a 1st and 2nd in Tampa, but didn’t do much in the Blue Grass Stakes. His odds make him somewhat appealing but not sure that his wins over suspect competition have held up this year.

We Miss Artie (PT Odds: 25-1) (by Artie Schiller o/o Fusaichi Pegasus mare) – Now We Miss Artie actually does seem like a turf/AW specialist to me, but I’can’t deny that there’s potential for an upset from this one. Would compare to Animal Kingdom, also a Spiral Stakes winner, but this one does not have the great distance influence from the dam that AK had.

Vicar’s In Trouble (PT Odds: 15-1) (by Into Mischief o/o Vicar mare – The other Ken Ramsey entrant, with We Miss Artie. Hard tryer, good horse, needs the lead. Staggered home to win Louisiana Derby, will be way too short here.

Wildcat Red (PT Odds: 18-1) (by D’Wildcat o/o Miner’s Mark mare – A Storm Cat line sprint sire gives us Wildcat Red who has definitely been impressive in his wins and seconds. See this one being way too short on pedigree to be a factor for more than a mile.

Harry’s Holiday (PT Odds: 40-1) (by Harlan’s Holiday o/o Orientate mare – A Polytrack runner by a miler out of a sprinter. By all rights, should be the longest shot on the board, but the blessed public will give him a much better shot than he actually has.

Wagering Strategy

As always, I’ll be keeping my eye on the odds Derby Day for my final bets. Right now, I’m leaning towards win bets on Hoppertunity and Medal Count and potentially Danza (if he gets ignored in betting again). I suspect Medal Count will be my only Place and Show bets, if he goes off at 15+ odds. Mostly, I will try to hit exotics with California Chrome heavily weighted with my Tier 1 horses then longshots mixed in with my top 4 at the minimum bets. Good luck!

Unfinished Portrait: Official Data on Equine Injuries

The Jockey Club’s press release summarizing the finding of its Equine Injury Database (EID) paints an incomplete picture of the impact of racing surfaces on injuries to racehorses. The headline conclusion is impressive: the synthetic surfaces in North America had a fatal breakdown rate of 1.22 per 1000 starts versus 2.11 for dirt surfaces.

The conclusion above is an undisputed fact given the data collected. What is not indisputable is the following statement: “synthetic surfaces prevent 0.89 racehorse deaths (per 1000) versus dirt tracks”. Another common phrasing might be “if all dirt surfaces in North America were converted to synthetic, we could reduce on-track breakdowns by 40%”.

The reason I cannot say the second sentences are indisputable is because other factors  come into play. These factors that  need to be isolated include track policies impacting horse safety, track personnel responsible for implementing policies, and the racing class of horses running amongst many others.

What has been most frustrating about the discussion around this, and Keeneland’s switch to dirt, is that the full Equine Injury database has not been made public so that a true, transparent, investigation into horse safety can be made. The Jockey Club has hired an equine breakdown specialist, a well-respected epidemiologist named Tim Parkin, to parse the full data. I have no doubt that Dr Parkin can do the job in question; however, I believe a stronger result would come out of a public and/or peer-reviewed process.

The ultimate goal would be to provide a magnitude, within a range of confidence, for the impact of track surface on breakdowns and also a magnitude for the other factors that are also important, policies and personnel and racing class at the front of the line. I firmly believe that synthetic surfaces play a (statistically) significant role in equine safety. I believe, with equal fervor, that the impact is not 0.89/deaths/K – I believe it is lower than that.

Why? Because I have run some numbers. As part of the 5-year summary of the database, TJC provided the same summarized breakout for tracks that were willing to make their breakdown rates public, 28 in all. (This includes all NYRA and California tracks, Keeneland and Gulfstream – all these tracks should be praised for sharing their results). Of course, TJC released these stats only in summarized PDFs by track; while very data-unfriendly, this is more granularity than we have seen.

Not one to let a file format get in my way, I imported the granular data from all 28 public tracks PDFs to create a public-reported EID. Fortunately for our number-crunching exercise, all Synthetic tracks save Arlington Park were represented in the public data. There is a lot of data to crunch through, but two results from the data have jumped out at me and I wanted to share. Moreover, I want people to have access to this data and either confirm or refute my results and also find things on their own.  I am making the data available here:

TJC – Public EID on Google Docs

Public Equine Injury Database Summary Results

Preface: It is important to note that this database has a lot of variance. There are 204 separate triads [?] of Track-Surface-Year in the data – the public dataset has a weighted average of 1.72 DPK for all surfaces, but equally weighting each track comes out to 1.96. More importantly, the Standard Deviation for this sample of 204 datapoints is 1.27, which is 65% of the mean. My rule of thumb is that a std dev of 25% of mean is “normal”, so the EID data would be higher variance. Higher variance generally weakens the strength of causation for any one variable. This alone gives me pause when drawing conclusions from a dataset.

1. Tracks with Synthetic Surfaces also have safer turf courses

Turf DPK
All Turf 1.54
Tracks w Synth Main 1.39
All Other 1.58

Since synthetic mains were so well-represented in the data, we could actually breakout the results of their turf courses separately. While it’s a small relationship (12% lower), tracks with synth mains had safer turf courses than all other turf courses reported. I have not tested for statistical significance, but 132000 turf starts are in the summary.

This indicates to me that perhaps there are policies and personnel in places at these tracks that contribute to overall racehorse safety, and the magnitude could be as much as 0.20 DPK.

2. The relationship between distance and DPK persists on a synthetic sample

Turfway Park and Presque Isle Downs are two tracks in the public dataset. What makes them uniquely valuable to the analysis is that they have no turf course, and therefore their distance-to-DPK relationship is isolated to synthetics. (Again, TJC data could totally isolate this for each track and surface, but we’re using what we have)

<6f 1.22 1.22
6.0-7.5f 0.95 0.96
8f+ 0.98
Total 1.02 1.02

Over 66,000 races, races run at less than 6f were 25% more likely to have a fatality than 6f+ at these two tracks.

If distance – or, more importantly, if some other variable (class) for which distance is a proxy – were not a factor, then we would expect the racing surface to reduce or eliminate the relationship of distance. (<6f is 20% higher for all races). This factor, be it distance or class, may have a DPK magnitude of 0.24 when applied to the higher AW DPK stat

3. When looking at a certain class level on dirt in the public database, shorter distances are not less safe than longer (i.e. the distance relationship disappears)

California Racing Fairs all report data and all run at a similar class level – basically lower level claimers topping out with an infrequent allowance or overnight stake. Plus the majority have only dirt tracks. Look at the data:

<6f 2.31 2.31
6.0-7.5f 2.42 2.17 avg
8f+ 1.72
Total 2.21 2.21

I grant that this says little about the safety of dirt vs synthetic. A statistician might conclude from this data, nonetheless, that the observed relationship between distance and DPK is not as strong when controlling for a certain class level. Therefore, class and not distance is strongly viable as a dependent variable. Mainly, it reinforces the need to look at the data more closely


I will not make claims that what I have provided above definitively shows what I claim. That’s why I’m making this database publicly (again, here) available so others can test these claims and look at the data more robustly. There are definitely other interesting observations in the public dataset that I think both strengthen AND weaken the synthetic surface claims. The Jockey Club needs to do something to get the full dataset in front of more eyeballs. But I’m pretty confident that three conclusions, which are really no-brainers, are true:

  1. The best racetracks do more than install synthetic surfaces to ensure equine safety. I believe installing synthetic surfaces, for a time, were a credible additional commitment to safety. People and policies matter a lot, perhaps more than surface.
  2. Racing class is an important predictor of likelihood to breakdown – the link needs to be investigated and quantified
  3. Synthetic races do indeed reduce fatal injuries vs other surfaces, but not by 40%, and not without a pre-established commitment to safety from the track and its personnel

My statistical instinct tells me the real preventative value of synthetics is in the 15-25% range, which is still really great, about 65 horses/year, more if we factor in training. I would love to know for certain – this is a call to make sure that happens as soon as possible.