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.

The Reality of Fantasy Horse Racing

Fantasy sports have been an enormously successful means of increasing fan engagement for the Big 3 professional sports organizations in the US: the NFL, the NBA and MLB. Fantasy baseball started the trend with the popularity of “Rotisserie” baseball, which has been around since 1980 (with a few predecessors), and I can remember playing a modified version as early as 1992 (I was 14). Fantasy football was the game that exploded the phenomenon, as its 4-month season with a weekly cadence, book-ended by a draft and playoffs, expanded its audience, being less time-intensive than its baseball counterpart.

Several racing industry organizations (the NTRA, Churchill Downs, the Breeders Cup, WinStar Farms, among others) have all launched and promoted “fantasy racing” games with the intention of attracting a new audience to the sport. I am not going out on a limb by saying that all these efforts that have thus far mostly failed to garner significant engagement from existing fans and have utterly failed in bringing fans of other fantasy sports to fantasy racing. This post’s title buries the lede – the reality of fantasy horse racing is that it sucks.

Successful fantasy sports games put the player in place of the owner.

For the most part, fantasy racing games fail because they replicate some other element of the sport, usually the handicapping and betting aspect. The current fantasy racing game being promoted is the Breeders Cup Fantasy Challenge; if you follow the link, you’ll see that the BC challenge is basically a weeks-long handicapping contest that is free to enter. It utilizes a few successful elements of fantasy football – weeks-long competition, free to enter, form up leagues – but the basic premise remains “pick a winner”.

The Churchill Down Road to the Roses contest tries to replicate the ownership experience somewhat by picking a stable of Derby contenders then earning points for their placing in Derby preps. The contest, however, almost infamously, spectacularly failed when one entrant picked Verrazano for all 6 spots in his stable, having an easy lead going into the Derby. Orb’s win prevented any major egg on CDI’s face, but still…

Successful fantasy sports games put the player in place of the owner by recreating situations that owners face.

In my estimation, good fantasy sports games do three things well: create scarcity, create differential value, and create interactions between players. These are all constraints faced by, say, an NFL owner. Bud Adams (a Nashville resident, I’m a Titans’ fan) can only employ 53 players, pay them a total of $123M, and can’t try to offer a player under contract with another team more money to play for him. A good QB is worth more than a good kicker, and The Blind Side taught us the value of left tackles. Still, players can be released, picked up, and traded and NFL general managers are constantly on the phones with their colleagues as they assemble their team.

Successful fantasy games create scarcity

In fantasy football, a player can play for only one team. A team can only have so many roster spots. A team can only start 1 or 2 players at each position.

I’m unaware of any fantasy racing game that actually prevents someone from picking a horse if it’s already been picked. It’s not really ownership if multiple people can “own” the same horse for purposes of a game.

Successful fantasy games create differential value

In most fantasy sports, differential value is created via draft – the players that are drafted earlier have greater value than those drafted later. In a draft format, luck has a big role – if there are, say, three clear-cut top picks, whoever gets the top 3 draft slots has a huge advantage. The innovation in response to that is the auction draft, where each team has a fixed pool of funds out of which to bid on players. Draft order doesn’t matter – if you want the top pick, you’ll pay for him but at the expense of filling out the rest of your roster.

Again, most fantasy racing games make little attempt to make one horse more “expensive” to own than another, largely because there is no scarcity in the first place

Successful fantasy games create interactions between players

The absolute best parts of fantasy football are, in order: the draft, the mid-week deals, the trash talk. Trying to improve your team is the essential element of the game, trying to win by acting as your own GM. A typical deal in FF might be a top wide-receiver and back-up running back for a top running back – the success or failure of a trade depends on the difference in opinion of value.

Have you ever traded/bought/sold/claimed a horse in a fantasy league? I think not.

Fantasy racing games simply do not capture the essential elements that make other fantasy sports compelling and fun. This is because they do not attempt to replicate, in any serious manner, the experience of owning and managing a racing stable. But here’s the great thing:

They could.

Towards a Better Handicapping Contest – Part 2

If you asked most professional poker players what World Series of Poker (WSOP) event they would be proudest about winning, I think few would say the $10K buy-in No-Limit Hold-Em (NLHE) main event so popularized by ESPN. The large crowds and the nature of NLHE means that luck plays a much larger role in a successful outcome for those seasoned veterans. (They might say any schmo can suck out a straight on the river to beat my set, in the parlance).

I think most would say they would prefer to win the 50K HORSE event. HORSE combines, in a rotating tournament, five different types of poker that test different skills and play-styles. (That’s Hold-Em, Omaha, Razz, Stud, Stud-Eights or Better). I’m a fair Hold-Em player (positive lifetime ROI) and I can honestly say I’d have a better shot at winning a 10,000 person hold-em tournament than a 100 person HORSE tourney. I simply haven’t studies the other four games – I would very much be the dead money at the table.

Given the stakes and the multi-game skill involved, the WSOP HORSE tournament winner very rightly deserves the prize earned. I think the HORSE model is one that could be implemented for a skill-determining horse racing handicapping contest. The idea would be to combine the structures of different contests while introducing novel scoring mechanisms. Below, I have some suggestions that might get racing contests closer to that outcome.

  1. Combine the two types of Win-Place contests today, live scoring and upfront picks – if 50% of your score is determined by who you really think will win 2-4 hours in advance and the other half determined by assessing conditions, picking logical longshots, or reaching for a score, you have diminished (but certainly not eliminated) the element of luck inherent in either scenario.
  2. Utilize the win parlay – A frequent argument from contest players is that they want to be rewarded for picking winners. A parlay component would aid that. Say, for example, 20% of a hypothetical contest bankroll was bet on each race. With live scoring, contestants who picked winners early would be able to wager additional dollars on their next pick. (If you have $100 to start, bet $20 on a 2-1 horse that wins, the next round (with $160 in bank, you may bet $32). First-race losers only have 20% of $80 to bet ($16).
  3. Bowl for picks – Inspiration can be found in the most unlikely of places. Bowling (that of the ten pins and an alley) has one of the very best mechanisms for rewarding streaks and consistency: a strike adds the next two rolls to your total; a spare one. Apply the same to your handicapping contest – a win gets you 50% payout of your next two races, a place your next one (or some other percentage)
  4. Devise synthetic pick-Xs –  Allow a portion of the contest bankroll to be dedicated to picking potential winners of a set of races. If in an 8-race contest, have 2 potential Pick-4s that the contestant try to hit with a hypothetical (say $200) bankroll. This would identify skill in ticket-making (very valuable in handicapping, generally) but would lead to an interesting set of choices. Should you heavily lean on favorites for more than the minimum (say $1) or spread? The payout would be determined by a simple parlay of the four winners.
  5. Show Parlays – Again, portion the bankroll for a show parlay over all races. Rewards consistency for identifying competitive horses, but not producing huge multiples.
  6. Rolling Doubles, Pick 3s – Like options 3 and 4, rewards streaks and consistency.

Without a doubt, these scoring ideas trade simplicity for rewarding skill. To implement properly, the holder of the contest must be very thoughtful about how to weight the various elements. A lot of trial and error will probably be involved. That said, I have been tossing around a handicapping contest design around for some time. This is a first iteration, but I believe it would be a fun contest to play.

  1. 40% Weighted Upfront Picks, Win-Place-Show, Uncapped – This is designed to reward handicapping in advance of the event. The show payoffs reward identifying longshots that may figure into payouts, but may not win. Uncapped winnings reward identifying horses whose morning line do not reflect its eventual payout – a handicapping skill in and of itself.
  2. 40% Weighted Live Scoring, Win-Place, Capped (20-1, 10-1) – The traditional handicapping design. Allows players to change picks to changing conditions and longshot players to get back in, but with a lower chance of catching up to those who handicapped correctly in the first place.
  3. 20% Parlay, Live Scoring – Win, Capped (20-1) – Rewards consistency of picks in order to maintain a bankroll. Picks can be changed to reflect conditions. Multi-winners should have larger bankrolls into final races. Cap evens out impact of large longshots.

Given the ubiquity of free tools, like Google Sheets, to track this information, such a contest would not be too difficult to coordinate. It may be somewhat difficult for a 10th place contestant to figure out how exactly to bet the final race to make the top 5. You know what, that’s okay – the simple designs make it too easy.

If my work and life allows, I may inaugurate a contest like the above. Do stay tuned.

Towards a Better Handicapping Contest – Part 1

The handicapping contest in horse racing is a special animal: it offers the promise of a better return on investment (ROI) for the skilled handicapper because the parimutuel takeout does not apply or is effectively lower. A $100 entry into a contest with 100 competitors may pay out $9000 in total prize, meaning the average return for all players is 90%. $10,000 of bets into parimutuel pools may pay $7500-8500 depending on what pools are bet, exotics having higher average takeout than straight pools.

 Of course, a handicapping contest doesn’t pay out unless you finish in the top 5-10% of all competitors, and often your winning is an entry into an even larger (but more lucrative) handicapping contest. This is essentially what the National Handicapping Contest (NHC) tour is about – win a qualifying event to play for a million-dollar-plus prize. Other contests, like Derby Wars, offer the more standard contest: pool the money, winners take all.

 There are more casual events that may be played among friends or, say, a large e-mail list following a prominent racing meet. Serious handicappers should devote a portion of their handle to playing in these contests for several reasons:

  1. They may improve your ROI
  2. They encourage an in-depth look at races that can improve your parimutuel wagering
  3. They can be a tremendous amount of fun

The last is important. I understand that people, generally, gamble because they may win money but the activity of gambling itself is a form of entertainment. I will not bemoan a trip to Vegas losing a few hundred dollars if that time was spent, with friends, at a blackjack or craps table. I know the risk, I know the outcome is mainly luck; if I’ve passed the time in the company of friends, it’s money well spent.

Racing is the same – betting on the ponies is meant to be fun. I think handicapping contests capture that spirit better than most. It is true, however, that the contests themselves leave something to be desired in how the winners are ultimately decided. Let me explain.

The most popular contest today is the win-place contest. Eight to ten races across a single or multiple racing cards are selected for contestants to pick horses. For each race, a contest picks a horse and, if it finishes first or second, the contestant wins the win, place, or win+place payout on that horse toward their contest score. Trouble is, sometimes a huge longshot comes in; those that had it are almost impossible to beat in the contest. So, most contests place a cap on how much can be won – typically 19-1 to win, and 9-1 to place.

Those same contests, however, usually have scoring that is updated live, such that each contestant knows where they stand. Those in the back of the pack, trying to get into contention, will only pick longshots in the hopes that a placing will vault them back up the standings. Those in front, who might have picked legitimate chances, may find themselves losing to luck instead of skill, when the contest is mainly designed to reward skill.

Thus, the skilled handicapper says, all picks should be made in advance. A different skilled handicapper may rightly say, however, that her picks are based on odds nearer to post-time, she is picking between two horses, and besides the track for this race has shown a bias that I want to play (or it’s come off the turf, or turned sloppy). An upfront contest couldn’t anticipate such an outcome and would be as much determined by luck as the live scoring option.

You might notice that both the above options sacrifice the impact of skill (vs luck) for simplicity. It’s very easy to comprehend the rules for a win-place(-show) contest, capped or uncapped, and their simplicity I have no doubt makes them popular. Common variations like the NHC introduce more races, mandatory and optional races, and best bets (2x payoff). The Breeders Cup contest is a “live money” contest where the contestants can play anything on the BC races. If I recall correctly, however, the winners of recent ones simply made a large win bet on the BC Classic winner – while recognizing their skill, ultimately the contest came down to picking the winner of one race.

For a handicapping contest to truly identify skill (consistency in picking winners) over luck, the scoring system must ultimately increase in complexity. In my next post, I will make some suggestions to improve contests that do that very thing.

2013 Kentucky Derby – Handicapping the Field

The 2013 Kentucky Derby is, in many ways, the polar opposite of last year’s. In 2012, 9 horses that had run in the Breeders Cup Juvenile 6 months prior would line up to Run for the Roses. To many (including me), this indicated a good group of three-year-old colts. If you were counted among this group, or beat a member head-to-head, you proved your place among the line-up in Louisville.

That sentiment indicated to me that the winners of the Santa Anita Derby and the Arkansas Derby, among others, were good bets in the Kentucky Derby. I’ll Have Another and Bodemeister didn’t run in the BC Juvenile but they beat, respectively, its 3rd place finisher and the BC Juvenile Sprint champ. They were fast horses, and a bit of pedigree work indicated to me that they were two of the three best bets to win on Derby day. Turns out, last year, I got lucky – the race shaped as well as I could imagine and my prediction paid $300 on a $2 exacta bet.

This year…well, this year is a mess. Exactly zero horses have stuck around from the BC Juvenile to contest the Kentucky Derby. Not that the BC Juvenile was ever a major predictor of Derby Success, but it has been legitimately difficult to identify the competition against which this year’s prep winners have won.

The Derby points system has added a twist – by marginalizing two-year-old races, the points system has brought more stamina-laden pedigrees to the forefront. (Actually, it has done the converse, minimizing the impact of speedy, precocious horses winning rich juvenile purses towards Derby qualification). This year, much more than last, I find it much more difficult to disqualify a large group of horses on pedigree alone.

Which leaves me to actual handicapping which, by the looks of my ADW account, should not be trusted by anyone reading this article. I may only commend myself by saying that I have cared about these 20 horses much more than the hundreds that I have glanced over on my forms. With that, my thoughts.

As last year, I’m going to group the Kentucky Derby entrants into 4 tiers. The 1st group, I consider the prime win contenders. The second, I think can win but will not bet to do so – instead, I’ll put them in most of my exotic bets. Tier 3, I’ll add to the bottom of a few exactas and trifectas, mostly looking for prices. Tier 4, if they win or finish in the money, I close my laptop a loser – in a race of 20, it’s a not unlikely outcome. I’m providing what I think will be the horse’s post-time odds.

Tier 1 (Top Win Contenders):

Itsmyluckyday – 15-1 – What’s to like about the 2nd place finisher in the Florida Derby? In two January races, he was absolutely the fastest 3yo colt on the Derby Trail. In the G3 Holy Bull, he easily beat BC Juvenile winner Shanghai Bobby, who is a very fast horse (and I expect will be again in future 1-turn races). Then, he got some time off. He came back and finished 2nd in the Florida Derby to the likely Derby favorite, Orb. I think the time off was a reset button for IMLD – the FL Derby was his first effort off a layoff and horses often (usually?) perform better in their 2nd race back. Trainer Eddie Plesa has said the Derby was the target all along – I believe him.

I couldn’t get on board with IMLD if I didn’t think he had the pedigree to get 10f, at least faster than the other contenders. His sire, Lawyer Ron, had great success in 9f races and his lesser success at 10f is largely because of great winners like Barbaro, Invasor, and Curlin. He’s from the Danzig line of Northern Dancer, which has one Derby winner in Big Brown (thru Danzig’s son Boundary). His dam is a granddaughter of Seattle Slew (by Doneraile Court), his 2nd dam a grand-daughter of Mr Prospector (by Crafty Prospector), and his 3rd dam a daughter of Secretariat.

Watching his races, Itsmyluckyday runs with his head down, which may not seem spectacular, but turns out to be a very efficient way of running. This should help him in a race with 19 other horses. Speed, planning, pedigree, efficiency – this sounds likes a winning combination, and he should be in the 12- to 15-1 range come Derby day.

Revolutionary – 8-1 – Even before the announcement that 3-time Derby winner Calvin Borel was going to ride, I thought Revolutionary had the makings of a Kentucky Derby winning horse. I consider his distance pedigree to bet tops among Derby contenders. Certainly, his sire War Pass was a brilliant 2yo who flamed out as he stretched out, but the Blushing Groom line to generally considered to contribute stamina to its runners. In fact, just 6 runners in the line have made the Derby starting gate since 2000. Three, however, have finished in the money and Animal Kingdom (by champion miler Leroidesanimaux), won the 2011 Derby. Revolutionary’s damside is most impressive; his damsire is AP Indy (stamina influence) and his 2nd dam, Up the Flagpole, is the 2nd dam to BCC Classic winner and 2003 Horse of the Year Mineshaft. This horse is bred to go long, and I like his determination in the stretch

In my opinion, having Borel up for a horse owned by Winstar Farms and trained by Todd Pletcher (the exact combination for Super Saver winning in 2010) serves only to depress Revolutionary’s odds. The buzz on other horses (the next two specifically) will prevent Revolutionary from being too underlaid in the win pool, and in most exotic bets he’ll contribute a fair multiplier.

Orb – 5-1 – This horse has completely grown on me. Normally, I would downgrade an AP Indy or a Storm Cat-line colt because they have performed so poorly in the Derby, despite multiple starters. But Orb…Orb has made me a believer that, not only can he win, but that he may be a very special horse indeed. A homebred by the Phipps family, Orb is by Spendthrift Farm’s Malibu Moon, who I believe to be both the most versatile and underrated son of AP Indy at stud. (Malibu Moon is also one of the only horses I’ve “met”, on a private walking tour of Spendthrift. You are warned I may be biased.) Orb is inbred to Mr Prospector, his dam a daughter of Unbridled, the last horse to both win the Kentucky Derby and sire a Derby-winner. Damascus and Bold Ruler both sired members of his female family, the latter in a pairing with the dam of the great(est) filly Ruffian.

Those who speak of trainer Shug McCaughey do so with reverence and awe and Orb is his best shot ever to win. On his best, he has beaten one of the best in Itsmyluckyday. Jockey Joel Rosario has been winning everything this past month and will certainly give the horse a great shot. Orb won’t be a great price as the likely favorite but a victory by him would be a victory for the sport, and some of the best people in it. Personally, I’d like to put the AP handicapping angle to bed, and Orb is the best bet to do it.

Tier 1a – (Strong Win Contenders):

Verrazano – 5-1 – The horse that seemed a sure fire favorite does seem to be getting overlooked a bit, and probably by me as well. He’s an undefeated 4-for-4 with his first start on January 1st of this year. He beat the winner of the Blue Grass Stakes, Java’s War, in the Tampa Bay Derby and several graded winners in the Wood Memorial. He has a fairly strong pedigree for the distance: the Turn-To line (of which sire More than Ready) is part is respectable as a stamina influence and Verrazano is suspended on his dam side by such names as Giant’s Causeway, Mr Prospector, Blushing Groom and Dr Fager. He seems nearer to the type of horse that Todd Pletcher is famous for training (brilliant early, fragile late) but it’s quite possible we haven’t yet seen what this horse is capable of.

Connections and top jockey John Velzaquez mean this horse cannot be ignored, but I do think he is underlaid at any price below 10-1. Still, I cannot ignore that he consistently wins and he is very fast. I often remind myself that all horses can “get the distance” but it takes special ones to do it quickly. I’m not particularly excited about Verrazano, but I have to respect him, and may need him on the top of a few exotics in order to cash.

Java’s War – 12-1 – Java’s War was my sneaky longshot horse until he went and ruined that by winning the Blue Grass. At least he showed his capability that day, and like the other son of War Pass in here (Revolutionary), I think he’ll have no problem with the distance. Java’s War may have an even better pure stamina pedigree being in-bred to Blushing Groom top and bottom (by a BG-line sire out of a BG-line mare). Others have described him as having a more “grassy” pedigree and I cannot dispute that – he has won on all three surfaces. There’s no doubt in my mind he can make a winning run if he can get into contention by the 3/8ths pole. Jockey Julien Leparoux will need to do a nice piloting job to avoid a number of horses backing up while not going too wide.

I’ve already committed to parlaying my $5 win ticket on Java’s War in the Blue Grass to a $29 worth of win and exacta tickets with him on top, so I’m hoping for 12- to 15-1. Probably will get it, but he won’t be supercharging any exotic tickets like he might have at 30-1.

Tier 2 – Top Exotic Plays:

Palace Malice – 15-1 – This horse has already run 3 times in 8 weeks and is the biggest enigma of Pletcher’s contenders. He finished a good 3rd in a weird Risen Star, then a bad trip 4th in the Louisiana Derby in which he looked the equal (or better) to stablemate Revolutionary. But, he wheeled back to get a good 2nd to Java’s War in the Blue Grass in which he did most of the hard work stalking the leaders to just miss to the fast closer. By 2007 HOY Curlin, winner of multiple classic races and grandson of Mr. Prospector, his distaff side includes several distance influences that are more associated with turf success. He does, however, have one overlooked angle: this year’s Derby is run on May 4th, Star Wars Day (May the Fourth be with you) and he’s the only runner to have 1986 BC Classic winner Skywalker as a sire of direct female relative. I have invented worse reasons to bet a horse and I’d love to see Curlin have a live one.

Will Take Charge & Oxbow – 20-1 – I put these two D. Wayne Lukas trainees together as I think they have equal shots for different reasons. Will Take Charge has two stakes wins this year, the latter in the Rebel Stakes being what I thought was Oaklawn’s best field. That the connections skipped the Arkansas Derby or Blue Grass is strange, but it sounds like he might have had a growth spurt and has looked good in training. He likes to travel in mid-pack and knows how to pass horses. He is in the Unbridled line from Mr Prospector which has been very successful in the Derby, and his distaff side boasts notable distance influences Rubiano, Blushing Groom and Swaps. His dam is multiple G1 winner Take Charge Lady. Big shot.

Oxbow, on the other hand. seemed to peak early on the Derby trail, winning in January, placing in February in March then coming off the board in April. Looks like he’s going the wrong way. A couple things to note: in all but the win, he drew the outside post. He has had a different jockey in every race this year – (his winning jock is on his stablemate, but gets newly unretired Hall of Famer Gary Stevens as a consolation prize. Not bad.) He is likely to be forwardly placed in a moderately paced race – his preferred runstyle. His pedigree is virtually identical to last year’s Belmont Stakes 2nd place finisher Paynter. Their sire Awesome Again is one of the best influences for success at the 10f distance; however, most of those wins have come in older horses. A horse like Oxbow you need a price on and you’re likely to get it.

Frac Daddy – 50-1 – My first big reach, but bear with me. I don’t consider this horse a major win contender based on pedigree (sire Scat Daddy being of the Storm Cat line) but I acknowledge he checks a lot of other boxes. He’s had success at Churchill, breaking his maiden here, and finishing 2nd in the Kentucky Jockey Club stakes at 2. His 1st race back, he tore off half his foot (horses do this, apparently) and still finished the Holy Bull (albeit well back of Itsmyluckyday). His next start, he roped Orb and IMLD in the Florida Derby. His trainer (Kenny McPeek of Java’s War) had enough faith in him to ship to Arkansas where he finished a close 2nd to Overanalyze. Frac Daddy is a big horse with a large stride who is looking at a peak effort at a big price – he may not hit the exacta, but is a horse I’ll feature in multiple trifectas and superfectas to get one of those legendary Derby payoffs. I think you’d get at least 12-1 on a show bet with him, if that’s your thing.

Vyjack – 15-1 – I have bumped this horse up from a low tier 3 horse to my lowest tier 2 horse because I think he’s got some guts. Other handicappers I respect are very high on him based on his pre-Wood Memorial form. He apparently had an illness the week preceding the Wood, didn’t run his best, but still got 3rd. His illness has been treated and should be able to give good effort. I’m not high on his pedigree (by Into Mischief, of the Storm Cat line) but he may be positioned well enough to sustain a run that gets him in the money. As a gelding, Vyjack may well be a horse that makes noise in the handicap division for years, but don’t think today’s his day. Respect nonetheless.

Tier 3 – Reluctant Exotic Plays:

Goldencents – 8-1 – He is underlay #1, primarily because of the combination of trainer (last year’s winning trainer Doug O’Neil) and part-owner Coach Rick Pitino (of the national champion Louisville Cardinals). The national story should translate into some local love and some dumb money on a horse that hasn’t seen any horses like those above. That’s actually unfair, however, as Goldencents does have a few things in his favor. For one, he’s fast, and he ran an excellent Santa Anita Derby against the best that the West Coast had to offer (which was much worse that last year’s contingent). He did so employing a different running style than this previous wins (off the pace instead of front running), which shows some versatility. He had considerable success at 2, seems sound enough, and Doug O’neil demonstrated last year that he knows how to prepare a horse for the Derby. I cannot get past Goldencents’ pedigree which, like Vyjack, has Into Mischief on the top and not much else on the bottom. Think running near the front gives him his best chance to hang on for a piece, an outcome I can neither rule out nor endorse for the low price I’ll get for betting it.

Overanalyze – 15-1 – I don’t love Overanalyze but the Arkansas Derby winner should always be considered a threat. Still, this year’s renewal seemed a cut below, especially with Oxbow and Bob Baffert’s contingent laying an egg, and a slow final time. Pedigree is fair on top (by Dixie Union, sire of last year’s Belmont winner Union Rags) but doesn’t have much on the bottom. Hard to recommend at the price, but he is a grade 1 winner that may be sitting on his best race. Will consider for Uncle Mo’s former connections.

Black Onyx – 25-1 – The Spiral Stakes winner hopes to take the same path that Animal Kingdom did to victory in 2011, but I cannot say he’s as good a fit on top as that one was. Still, Went the Day Well hit the superfecta last year and Black Onyx has pedigree enough to be a factor. Having shipped to Churchill Downs right after his win, he’ll have a familiarity with the surface, though works do not seem to point to him like they did to Animal Kingdom. Again, price is important, and you’ll get it.

Mylute – 15-1 – The second major underlay candidate, since female jockey Rosie Napravnik will be riding him. Now, I firmly believe that Rosie gives Mylute his absolute best chance to win, but doesn’t turn a 40-1 horse into a 15-1 shot. Still, in this guy’s favor, he is one of a handful of the Mr Prospector line runners in here and looks to be running late. He gave Revolutionary all he could handle last out, but think the situation favored him that day. Good story, may move up on wet track; tough for me to endorse.

Lines of Battle – 25-1 – UAE Derby winner with a pretty terrific pedigree for the distance. I have a hard time supporting a horse, however, whose connections ship him half way around the world four days before this race on a less than favored surface. Pedigree play, because War Front up top, Arch below can win a 10f race (though that race is usually on grass). No jockey has yet been named

Tier 4 – (They finish in the money, I lose):

Normandy Invasion – 8-1 – Underlay #3. Eventually, we all have to take stands against perceived good horses and Normandy Invasion is my stand against this year. His late charging 2nd in the Wood Memorial has everyone holding him up as the “wiseguy” horse, thinking his late kick will mean a victory with another furlong to run. I have doubts that his pedigree will allow him to get the distance. His sire, Tapit, has been remarkably productive getting stakes winners at 2 and 3, but that success appears to top out at 8.5 furlongs. His distaff side appears speed oriented as well. His Wood Memorial placing may ultimately have been a product of Vyjack being sick and the rest being simply outclassed. He’s going to take a lot of action, just not mine.

Golden Soul –  50-1 – Charles Fipke owns both Golden Soul and Java’s War, but this is the lesser of the two entries. This runner has a pretty solid pedigree that looks best suited to grass, but should get the distance comfortably, if slowly. He’s by Perfect Soul, a son of all-time great sire Sadler’s Wells, and out of a Mr Prospector mare. I honestly think this horse will beat half the field on pedigree alone, but lack of speed will prevent him from threatening the top contenders.

Charming Kitten – 40-1 –  Popular owners Ken and Sarah Ramsey send out Charming Kitten and, like Golden Soul, he threatens a mid-pack finish. Sire Kitten’s Joy is also from the Sadler’s Wells line but his progeny also do their best running on grass and artificial surfaces. This is Todd Pletcher’s lowest rated entrant and I get the feeling that the Ramseys are just happy to have a shot. They cleaned up over at Keeneland, so they’ll have no problem affording tickets for their friends and family to pack the winner’s circle, or the bar at the Mansion.

Falling Sky – 50-1 – Poor Falling Sky – I’ve never given this grade 3 winner enough credit. He won the Sam Davis, then finished 3rd to Verrazano and Java’s War in the Tampa Bay Derby. He got more points for a 4th in the Arkansas Derby. His sire, Lion Heart, is a solid performer if not a stamina contributor. His dam sire, Sea Hero, won the Derby and there’s some distance influence beneath that. He just seems a horse that’s going backwards and unlikely to move forward on Derby day.

Giant Finish50-1 – Clearly a case of the owner wanting a horse in the Derby, as he was pointed toward an allowance race at Belmont before it was clear he’d be the 20th in. He is 2 for 3 on New York dirt, but he’s up against it here. Be thankful for horses like these, however – they improve the odds on everyone else.

AE – Fear the Kitten – 50-1 – Another Kitten’s Joy with a couple placings on dirt to get in. His best race, in Oaklawn’s Southwest, came in the mud. A lot to like from his damside, with Dynaformer, In Reality, and Arts and Letters contributing. The fact that he underperformed on Polytrack may indicate he is more suited to dirt and could be a surprise at a big price. A lot has to fall apart for that to happen, however.

2012 Kentucky Derby Trail 1 – Who’s Your Daddy?

One of the nuggets I learned this year about the Kentucky Derby is that the neither of the two pre-eminent stallions in North America can count a Kentucky Derby winner among their descendants. Neither Storm Cat nor A.P. Indy have a Derby winner of their own, nor do any of their sons or grandsons. I find this astounding. For Storm Cat, not a single winner from Tale of the Cat or Forestry or Johannesburg or Forest Wildcat or Giant’s Causeway. For A.P. Indy, nothing from Mineshaft or Pulpit or Malibu Moon or Tapit or Bernardini (though he’s only in his 2nd crop).

I look back over the last few years of my favorites going into the Derby – Pyro, Friesan Fire, Eskendereya, I Want Revenge – I wasn’t giving myself a chance! The truth is, these sire lines have been massively successful in two-year-old stakes, 3-yr-old KY Derby preps, with 3-yr-old fillies (including Oaks winners), and other Triple Crown Races. Mineshaft colts have run 2nd the last two years – it’s got to be a matter of time, right?

I finally broke my pedigree curse when I favored three colts in the 2012 Derby – Archarcharch, Soldat, and Animal Kingdom, all of whom were higher odds than 3 A.P. Indy grandsons – Nehro, Dialed In and Pants on Fire. What I’m saying is this: the general success of Storm Cat and A.P. Indy-line horses overvalues their specific performance in the Kentucky Derby. Consequently, value can be found by playing horses from other successful pedigrees. Moreover, that value can be found now in Derby Futures wagering.

Let’s look at the pedigrees of the Top 10 KY Derby Contenders (as based on odds found here – I believe the Wynn Sportsbook is the original source):

10 Union Rags Dixie Union Dixieland Band
12 Algorithms Bernardini A.P. Indy
12 Liaison Indian Charlie In Excess
15 Alpha Bernardini A.P. Indy
15 Hansen Tapit Pulpit
20 Out Of Bounds Discreet Cat Forestry
20 Rousing Sermon Lucky Pulpit Pulpit
25 Creative Cause Giant’s Causeway Storm Cat
25 Discreet Dancer Discreet Cat Forestry
25 Ever So Lucky Indian Charlie In Excess

Anything stand out to you? 7 of the Top 10 are SC/API-line horses. Not a ton of value here 4 months out. (Interesting to note that Union Rags is out of Dixie Union (Dixieland Band), a different branch of the Northern Dancer sire line.) For you Indian Charlie fans, remember the ‘Mo.

Now let’s look at some value horses whose sires and grandsires whose progeny have won the Derby.  Some notes on this chart:

  • KF Odds = KY Future Odds currently available at Wynn
  • KDG = Generation in Pedigree Locating a Sire with Derby-winning Descendant; 1 = Sire has KD winner in Sire Line, 2 = Grandsire has KD winner in Sire Line
  • KDWs = Number of KD winners in the winning Sire’s Line
  • In KDG 2, only 200+ odds horses are considered (my threshold for a future wager before 1st round of preps)
250 Power World Distorted Humor Forty Niner 1 1
125 B Shanny Street Cry Machiavellian 1 1
100 Our Entourage Street Cry Machiavellian 1 1
350 Friscan Two Punch Mr. Prospector 2 9
350 Spring To The Sky Langfuhr Danzig 2 2
300 Points Offthebench Benchmark Alydar 2 2
275 Seeker Hard Spun Danzig 2 2
200 Summer Front War Front Danzig 2 2
200 Wharton War Front Danzig 2 2

In my data set, just 3 major contenders have sires who have sired a Derby Winner so far (I definitely need to get more horses in here though) I’d only bet Power World at this point, given the odds. What’s really interesting to me is the second group beginning with Friscan, whose grandsire is Mr. Prospector, who counts 9 descendants as Derby Winners, the most recent being Mine that Bird and Street Sense.

The Danzig group is most interesting though. Big Brown is the most recent Danzig-line (Norther Dancer) KY Derby winner. Good reports on Summer Front say he is very much like Big Brown, and I know some folks (hi Ed!) who are very high on Wharton at this time.

200-1 is worth a small bet now, because it sure would be fun to say “I had that back in January”. Moreover, it’s been interesting to point out where the value isn’t, and get started on where it might be come Derby day. Anyone want to make a bet for me?