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!

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The Decade Double

Here’s a Daily Racing Form headline from 2024 (yes, the future):

North American Racing Handle Doubles Over the Last Decade

Do you find this headline completely unbelievable? It shouldn’t be. Let me ask this: how much would betting handle have to grow year-over-year for 10 years for that headline to be true? It’s not large – it’s only a 7.2% growth rate, compounded annually. In terms of growth above normal economic growth, it’s only a 3-4% adder to normal national growth trends.

Doubling handle would mean that contributions to track earnings and purses would also double during that period. (Neither earnings nor purses would double, since those are supported now by other sources like admission, concessions, and slots) I think most observers, seeing that handle was at an historic high, would no longer say that “horse racing is dead” but that racing was as good as it had been in 30-40 years.

Now, here’s two alternative beginnings to the article that accompany the headline. Which do you find more plausible?


1. Industry officials celebrated the 10th consecutive year of handle growth, noting that wagering on thoroughbred racing has doubled since the US marked the unofficial end of the Great Recession in 2014. Attendance and off-track wagering both doubled, track revenues increased 80%, and purse accounts increased by 60%. The purse account increase reflects that purse subsidies from other sources (racino/slots revenue, sales, supplemental fees) remained flat during this time. Tracks and horsemen used the windfall to increase races by 35% while the average purse went up 18%. Breeding finally reversed a two-decade long decline as the 2023 foal crop of 40,000 returned to levels not seen since 1991.

Most track officials credited their marketing and promotional efforts to get fans back to the track as the main source of success, but acknowledged that Jess’s Dream – the first foal of popular 2009 Horse of the Year Rachel Alexandra – winning the Triple Crown in 2015 kick-started their efforts. When “Taco” came back to race in 2016 and dueled in a cross-country campaign with the late-developing Cozmic One (Zenyatta’s first foal), the Breeders Cup Classic at Belmont Park featuring their final duel (won in a late nose by Cozmic One) set betting and ratings records for a non-Triple Crown race and energized the sport…


2. Industry officials acknowledged that the 2014 “Decade Double” initiative pioneered by The Jockey Club, NTRA, and a consortium of racetracks and other racing industry groups has met their goal of doubling betting handle on North American races in 10 years. The Decade Double initiative began with the premise that the $23 billion target for wagering on throughbreds would represent an all-time, inflation-adjusted, high indicator of interest in the sport. The leaders of the “Decade Double” campaign credit its focus on customers and getting buy-in from tracks and horsemen on how to share gains.

” We knew that the sport couldn’t grow without customer support,” said Jeff Gural, Jockey Club board member and head of the Decade Double Initiative. “Significant gains had to be realized by the customer – the bettor – and ultimately that meant lowering the price of betting on racing.”

“Working with our horsemen and tracks, we concluded – and believe me, it was a tense fight at times –  that bettors needed to see the lion’s share of gains, with tracks and horsemen splitting the rest. We settled on a 40/30/30 split, and that’s when efforts to reduce takeout by 40% began.”

This year, the average on-track takeout for a Win bet was 10%, which horseplayer’s Decade Double representative Andy Asaro noted was “much nearer betting the LA Jaguars and the points in the Super Bowl.” Exotics averaged 12-14%; in 2014, however, the typical takeout on exacta or trifecta pools was 20-25%.

The Decade Double and industry groups like NYRA and the CHRB aggressively promoted the takeout decreases, at first in hopes to keep track revenues and purse accounts level. Most groups acknowledge that the success was unexpected: track revenues have increased by 48% and total purses by 36%, despite the lower takeout. Racing days and total races have remained flat in response to a lower profile DD initiative meant to prop up field size in response to low foal crops. Even those have since recovered to a “healthy level” of 35,000, what many breeders consider sustainable at this level of betting…


It truly is amazing how growth can positively impact everyone while stagnation leads to tribalism and in-fighting and decision-making based on the fear of loss as opposed to the hope of gain. That’s unfortunately where horse racing is today.

Article 2, even if the numbers aren’t exact, shows that broad-based gains are possible if they accompany a plan and a target for growth. If we collectively bet $20B on racing, no one could rightly claim that racing was dead. It is, however, hard to envision that future if customers do not share in those gains. And again, the numbers are not daunting:

  • To double in volume, handle needs to increase by 7.2% a year.
  • To decrease takeout by 40% over 10 years, takeout needs to decrease by 5% a year.

The key, of course, is to offset the short-term revenue decrease from pricing with 2 other Ps of marketing.

  • Promote the heck out of the sport emphasizing lower prices (and other promotions)
  • Product quality needs to stay high /  improve (larger fields, showcase racing days, etc.)

The time element is the hardest part, because it’s not an overnight fix. Nothing worth doing ever is.

Racing’s Target Segments, Part 1 – Racing as Entertainment

Recently Chris Kay, the head of CEO of the New York Racing Association (NYRA), defended the planned admission increases at Saratoga and Belmont (from $3 to $5) by comparing the relative affordability of a day at the races to a Yankees game, placing the sport of racing into the same entertainment category as professional baseball. By extension, racing is therefore competing with other premium-priced sports experiences that includes the NFL, NBA, NHL, and NCAA Football and Basketball.

Other commentators (and one or two NYRA board members, thankfully) pointed out the obvious difference between horse races and those events is the ability, at the track and online, to legally wager on their outcome. Racing is a gambling game and, for better or worse, derives most of its revenue from the takeout on wagers. Higher admission will inevitably lead to lower attendance and on-track handle; therefore, whatever gains you planned from raising admission will be somewhat offset by lower revenues from wagering. Hard to say how much, but multiplying last year’s attendance at Saratoga and Belmont by the $2 increase in admission is not a sufficient forecast for revenue gains – it’s one or two levels more complicated.

Yet the contrary claim that racing is not entertainment is equally untrue. If gambling was not entertainment, Las Vegas would not exist – very few people can make a living gambling, and may only do so based upon the contributions of those who play for entertainment. Poker, sports betting, and horse racing are the games that a dedicated few can beat because the public likes to play for fun. I know for certain that I am one of those bettors. I track my ROI, and despite having learned a lot about racing over 3-4 years, my expected value is not much above the takeout. I play for fun (as my income allows) and the chance at the big score one day.

All this discussion led me to tweet this:

Racing has 3 “modes”.  1.”Day at Races”->Entertainment 2. Gambling->Entertainment 3. Gambling->Serious/Pro | Racing needs strategy for all 3

— Mike Dorr (@mikedorr77) December 5, 2013

I thought the idea worth exploring further with a longer series of posts, the first of which is below the fold: Continue reading