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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2013 Kentucky Derby Trail – Historical Pedigree Statistics

I had an interesting exchange last week following Pool 1 of the Kentucky Derby Future Wager, where I supported Code West in the pool over a very good horse who had just beaten him, Super Ninety-Nine (running today in Oaklawn’s Southwest Stakes).

@mikedorr77 @ejxd2 you are tough on pedigree. Pulpit out of Unbridled’s Song mare isn’t hopeless at 1 1/4. Staying together bigger concern.

— jeremyclemons (@jeremyclemons) February 11, 2013

Jeremy is right, when it comes to the Kentucky Derby, I am tough on pedigree. Last year, my inaugural post on pedigrees and the Kentucky Derby highlighted this odd fact; neither the two premier U.S. stallions of the last 25 years, Storm Cat and A.P. Indy, nor their siring progeny have produced a Derby winner. I made the contention that certain horses were bad bets in Kentucky Derby wagers because of that fact, that the entries representing those lines were underlaid as a result. I regret not having a more rigorous analysis to back that contention up, but good historical racing data is either expensive or laborious to obtain.

Twitter has been a bottomless source of handicapping insight and enthusiasm for the sport, and recently it provided a contact that has a passion for data and, I assume, a little free time to fulfill this request:

I appreciate Alex Campbell of Ontario Thoroughbred for coming through with a great data set with 331 entrants. I traced back each entrant to 8 distinct common ancestors or an “other”. Since 1997, for example, 87 descendants of the exemplary stallion Northern Dancer have entered the starting gate, but a full 32 of them are through his grandson Storm Cat. Similarly, Bold Ruler (who dominated Derby Pedigrees from before Secretariat to after Spectacular Bid) has had 44 representative runners since 1997, but all but 9 of them are by great-grandson A.P. Indy.

The sire that appears most often on top of Derby pedigrees is Mr Prospector, from the same foal crop (3 y.o. of 1973) as Secretariat and Forego. It may not seem fair comparing an older sire (first crop in 1976) to more recent ones (Storm Cat, 1989; A.P. Indy, 1997) but Mr. P’s Derby starters come through multiple sons, most notably Fappiano, through whom are a full third of the Mr P line representatives. Breaking out the Fappiano line seemed like a natural extension for the analysis.

Having identified common ancestry, I grouped by sire all Derby runners since 1997 (the first eligible crop for A.P. Indy). I calculated average finish, % of runners and handle wagered, and the ROI for a $2 bet on all entrants. The results are fascinating, confirming some suspicions but providing new insights as well.

Sire Lines with 20+ Derby Runners Since 1997

Sire Line

Runners

% Runners

% Pools

Pool / Rnrs

$2 ROI

Wins

Top 3

Exp. Top 3

Avg Finish

A.P. Indy

35

11.9%

13.6%

1.14

-2.00

0

4

7

10.7

Storm Cat

32

10.9%

8.8%

0.81

-2.00

0

5

4

10.5

Fappiano

30

10.2%

11.2%

1.09

2.20

2

8

5

8.4

Northern Dancer

45

15.4%

14.5%

0.95

-0.32

2

6

7

10.4

Mr. Prospector

65

22.2%

23.8%

1.07

0.21

6

11

11

9.1

Turn-To

22

7.5%

6.8%

0.90

-1.26

1

3

3

9.2

All Other

64

21.8%

21.2%

0.97

0.81

5

11

10

9.9

Total

293.0

-0.15

16

48.0

9.2

For A.P. Indy, the chart above says this – the AP Indy sire line has had 35 Derby entrants since 1997, which is 12% of total runners. 14% of all win dollars wagered were on APs, which is 14% more than the average runner. The line has no wins (so an ROI of -2.00) and 4 top 3s, but based on win pool dollars, we would have expected 7. AP Indy line runners have an average finish of 10.7, which is 1.5 positions behind the average finish position of 9.2

In summary, A.P.  Indy and his sons have accounted for 12% of Derby runners; those have been overbet, have not won, and have underperformed relative to expectations. I cannot say why, as the AP Indy line is known for a good balance of speed, stamina and brilliance. The line’s runners have performed well in the other two legs of the Triple Crown. I think it a genuine mystery in handicapping the race.

Storm Cat descendants are a bit more surprising. They have the same goose egg in the win column, but have five top 3s, one more than expected.  The line’s runners are generally underbet to expectations, by nearly 20%, and are not quite the money-burners I have accused them of being (just don’t bet them to win). I may only speculate, but the precocity of the Storm Cat line (and subsequent wins in 2-year-old graded stakes, often sprints/miles) have helped many make it to the Derby. Their mid-spring form, however, has been eclipsed by others and bettors have fully factored that in to their chances. It may turn out that the new Derby points system disadvantages these runners more than others.

Mr. Prospector (including Fappiano) is clearly a major influence – 32% of runners, half (8) of the winners, and 40% of in-the-money finishes. The Fappiano line (that includes sires Unbridled, Quiet American, Birdstone, Candy Ride and Empire Maker, among many others) stands out with two wins (Real Quiet and Mine that Bird) but another six in the money finishes (including Bodemeister and Dullahan last year). It’s the only major sub-line of Mr. Prospector line that is somewhat heavily bet (about 10% more than average) but has a positive ROI if betting all runners. (A word of warning, however – the ROI on the Fappiano line includes the $103 mutuel for Mine that Bird).

The non-Storm Cat Northern Dancer line (that includes the sub lines of notable sires Sadler’s Wells, Danzig, and Vice Regent, among others) is about average, underperforming average finish but meeting expectations for wins (Charismatic and Big Brown) and top 3s. The Turn-To line includes modern sires Arch, Dynaformer, and More than Ready) has similarly average performance (Barbaro the one winner) but is slightly underlaid at the windows.

The “All Other” column shows that it pays to look for a unique Derby pedigree. 5 winners of the last 16 years do not fit in the major common ancestors though  Maria’s Mon (sire of winners Monarchos and Super Saver) does trace back to Mr. Prospector’s sire Raise a Native. 2011 winner Animal Kingdom traces back to Blushing Groom, who shows up in only 6 Derby-running pedigrees. Those 6 runners produced three top 3s and average finish of 6.5 however  – small sample bias, but definitely worth looking at.

Below are results for multiple modern sire lines and their corresponding stats.

Modern Sire Line

Runners

% Runners

% Pool

Pool / Rnrs

$2 ROI

Wins

Top 3

Exp Top 3

Avg Finish

A.P. Indy

35

11.9%

13.6%

1.14

-2.00

0

4

7

10.7

Bold Ruler

9

3.1%

2.6%

0.83

-2.00

0

0

1

11.4

Fappiano

30

10.2%

11.2%

1.09

2.20

2

8

5

8.4

Forty Niner

12

4.1%

3.0%

0.74

3.35

2

3

1

10.3

Gone West

9

3.1%

3.1%

1.02

-0.64

1

2

2

9.3

Other Mr P

44

15.0%

17.6%

1.17

-0.47

3

6

8

8.8

Storm Cat

32

10.9%

8.8%

0.81

-2.00

0

5

4

10.5

Danzig

12

4.1%

6.6%

1.62

-1.27

1

3

3

9.0

Deputy Minister

12

4.1%

2.7%

0.65

-2.00

0

1

1

11.1

Sadler’s Wells

8

2.7%

2.1%

0.78

-2.00

0

1

1

11.0

Other ND

13

4.4%

3.1%

0.70

3.12

1

1

1

10.8

Turn-To

22

7.5%

6.8%

0.90

-1.26

1

3

3

9.2

In Reality

10

3.4%

3.0%

0.87

-2.00

0

1

1

11.5

Blushing Groom

6

2.0%

2.1%

1.01

5.63

1

3

1

6.5

Caro

5

1.7%

2.3%

1.33

-2.00

0

1

1

11.4

Other

34

11.6%

11.3%

0.98

2.75

4

6

5

9.4

293.0

Years

16

48

9.2

Prominent sires with 3 y.o.s this Derby season, representing the current line:

AP Indy: himself, Pulpit, Mineshaft, Bernardini, Tapit, Sky Mesa, Malibu Moon, Majestic Warrior (many others)
Bold Ruler: Vindication, Slew City Slew, Leestown, Doneraile Court
Fappiano: Unbridled’s Song, Birdstone, Empire Maker, Even the Score, Broken Vow, Midnight Lute, Quiet American, Victory Gallop, Candy Ride
Forty Niner: Distorted Humor, Flower Alley, Sharp Humor, Any Given Saturday, Peace Rules, Trippi, Utopia
Gone West: Speightstown, Grand Slam, Elusive Quality, Smarty Jones, Proud Citizen, Mr Greeley, Istan
Other Mr Prospector: Smart Strike, Street Cry, Fusaichi Pegasus, Curlin, English Channel, Street Sense, Lemon Drop Kid, Henrythenavigator, Student Council (many others), E Dubai
Storm Cat: Giant’s Causeway, Tale of the Cat, Forestry, Harlan’s Holiday, Into Mischief, Johannesburg, Henny Hughes, Stormy Atlantic, Lion Heart (MANY others)
Danzig: Hard Spun, Big Brown, Magna Graduate, War Chant, War Front, Green Desert, Dylan Thomas
Deputy Minister: Awesome Again, Ghostzapper, Dehere, Wilko, Awesome of Course, Toccet, Touch Gold, Spring at Last, Silver Deputy, Badge of Silver
Sadler’s Wells: El Prado, Medaglia D’oro, Galileo, Perfect Soul, Kitten’s Joy, Horse Chestnut
Other Northern Dancer: Dixie Union, High Cotton, Hook and Ladder
Turn-To: Arch, More than Ready, Dynaformer, Sunriver, Rock Hard Ten, Hat Trick
In Reality: Tiznow, Tizwonderful, Officer, Successful Appeal
Blushing Groom: Leroidesanimaux, Yonaguska, War Pass, Zanjero, Kafwain, Congaree
Caro: Indian Charlie
Other: Holy Bull, Macho Uno, Monarchos, Giacomo, Pleasant Tap (numerous others)