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 Retro-Graded Stakes Formula

A considerable amount of racing chatter recently has been about the quality of certain graded stakes races and how their winners have been little more than (well-)paid workouts for the horses and their connections. I’m inclined to agree – top class races should attract many horses of a certain caliber but the graded stakes field size is, on average, one of the smallest in the sport. (Allowance races are not far behind – claiming and lower-level turf races attract the largest fields).

What’s at issue here is “black-type”: when a horse (or his/her progeny) go to sale, having placed in a graded-stakes race can mean a considerable premium to their auction price. This makes total sense – thousands of horses of all ages are sold each year and the bold, sometimes ALL-CAPS,  font in the sales catalog allows buyers to assess the potential class of the [yearling/two-year-old/mare/stud prospect] they are buying at a glance without reviewing a lifetime of past performances. It’s an elegant solution to a problem that existed before the Internet and electronic data was a thing, and retains some value to this day.

The American Graded Stakes Committee (AGSC) is the “be-all-and-end-all” determiner of what races get the vaunted Graded Stakes designation, those that can get the BOLD CAP font in a sales catalog. The Thoroughbred Owners and Breeders Association (TOBA) controls this designation, of which their policies can be found here. To their credit, the AGSC has been quite responsive to upgrading the designation of races that have shown considerable improvement in the quality of horses running in them over the years. The best example, given my familiarity with them, is the upgrade of the Arkansas Derby for 3 year olds to Grade 1 status and its preps (the Rebel and Southwest) to G2 and G3 status, after the likes of Smarty Jones, Afleet Alex and Curlin used the Oaklawn route to prep for later classic wins.

My main criticism of the AGSC is that, while they have been responsive to upgrades, they have been much less so to downgrading races that haven’t been as good. It’s a natural response for well-meaning decision-makers: demonstrable class deserves and upgrade, suspect class deserves just one more chance. That bias has produced what I would call class “creep” whose end result is too many graded stakes with too small fields and, frankly, too many horses earning graded black-type. The AGSC uses “gut feel” more than data to determine the top quality races, which has contributed to the bias.

The main trend driving this is the declining North American foal crop, which has shrunk from a high of 40,000 in 1990 to 25,000 this past year (Source). The number of Graded Stakes has remained steadily above 450 for the last seven years despite the falling foal crop and the number of races run in North America. This means its roughly 40% easier today to earn black-type than it was just a few years ago. The AGSC has not been responsive enough to these trends; the impact is that black-type means less and less.

The fix I propose leverage the unique power of the age in which we live – use the vast information collected about races, and the past and future performance of the horses that run in them, to determine black-type. More importantly, tie the total number of graded stakes to a reasonable estimate of the foal crops eligible for those races. Lastly, tie the earning of black-type from placing in a graded stakes not to the horse’s placing, but the number of contenders the placing horse beat to earn it. What results is what I call the Retro-Graded Stakes Formula. These are the guidelines I’d suggest:

  • In 2006, roughly 100,000 thoroughbreds (3 years of foal crops) would have been eligible for graded stakes eligibility, or roughly 1 GS for every 210 born (100K/475) . Let’s be generous and say that a GS win should be available for every 200 foals.
  • Black-type is especially valuable for fillies and mares, but their graded stakes representation is outsized compared to the open races for which they are eligible. If fillies and mares are eligible for all graded stakes, but colts, geldings, and horses are eligible for all, then gender-restricted graded stakes should represent just one third (33%) of all graded stakes – currently, 41% of Graded Stakes are gender-restricted.
  • Many graded stakes are age-restricted, so tying them to the eligible foal crop makes sense. For 2- and 3-yos in a foal crop of 24,000, that means just 120 graded races to split between the 2- and 3-year-old races, and only 40 for fillies and mares. Currently, there are 184.
  • Open company races, having a larger eligible foal crop, would get a majority of the graded stakes races. This aligns with the industry desire (supposedly) for keeping horses running at a later age.
  • Field size matters in a stakes race – it is easier to place in a 5-horse field than an 8-horse field, naturally. To earn black-type, require that a horse beat at least 60% of the field they are in. For a 4-horse race, only the winner earns black type. In a 5- to 7-horse race, top 2. Only in a field of 8 or more can an ITM guarantee black-type.
  • The total number of graded stakes would shrink to the foal crop of 3-4-5 year olds/200 (roughly 360, based on 2011-2013)  but distributing those more to open company races versus any kind of restriction. If there are 120 age-restricted races, there would be 240 without.

The above proposals are conditions that the AGSC could implement today. The biggest change, however, would be to use the past and future performances of race horses to determine the true class of a race. This would take some doing. The RGSA would assign a provisional class to a race before its run based on its current historical standing, determined by prior class of the horses in it. For example:

  • A race could be graded a PG[1,2,3], meaning a Provisional Grade 1 (2 or 3) based on the level of horses who have run in it, and their subsequent performance. Minimum purse sizes would be required – the AGSC gets this right.
  • After a suitable period of time, probably 3-6 months, the race would be graded RG[1,2,3] , again based on both the past and subsequent performance of its entries. The total number of RG races will be tied to the eligible foal crop for that race.
  • One revision to a races grade would be allowed should multiple horses from the race go on to greater things.
  • Ungraded stakes could get bumped to RG status (and future PG status) if multiple performers win subsequent RG contests.
  • Allowance level races with multiple past and future RG performers could get special “Key Race” status that could be noted in a catalog page.

I am not suggesting that the AGSC adopt these changes; though that might be ideal, it would be too radical a change. I’m saying that any group with data and sufficiently publicity could use the RGSF to challenge the status quo with regard to the class of sales horses. The AGSC has no competition – it’s time they had some.

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.

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)