As I write this, it appears likely that there will be a muddy—or at least wet—track for the May 6 Kentucky Derby. So how much is that going to affect who’s going to win? A lot. The only problem for bettors is that at this point in their careers we don’t have much of an idea of just who benefits and who suffers as a result of the mud.
Horses tend to be insecure about footing and very few actually like running on a wet track. But some mind it less than others and will turn in a performance as good as their usual. That’s often enough to win over a better horse who is less comfortable on muddy surface.
Most of the 20 horses expected to start in the Kentucky Derby have limited racing experience in general and even less experience racing on wet tracks. Eight (including the morning line favorite Classic Empire) have won on off tracks, but only Gormley has won a stakes race in the mud.
In lieu of actual experience on wet tracks, handicappers look at the wet-track success of the parents, particularly the sire, since ability in the mud is sometimes, but not always, inherited. There are a number of ways to analyze wet-track pedigrees, but the most respected system—that of Lee Tomlinson—gives the nod to Irish War Cry, Tapwrit, and McCraken.
One other fact to keep in mind: sometimes a horse who otherwise can’t handle the mile and a quarter distance of the Kentucky Derby—one who speeds away from the gate to an early lead and is likely to get caught in the stretch—can sometimes persist on a muddy track. It’s probably a function of avoiding the mud thrown back from horses in front. A likely early leader is Irish War Cry, interestingly the horse at the top of the Tomlinson ratings for wet-track pedigree. On the other hand, Irish War Cry has a terrible post position. Battle of Midway also qualifies on both fronts. He has a high Tomlinson rating and likes to run on or near the lead.
Of course, this works the other way too. A horse like Gunnevera, who is expected to come from off the pace, may have trouble making up ground late in the Derby.
Remember that both the weather and horses are fickle. The track may end up fast and the horses may run nothing like they are expected to. That’s horse racing--and that’s what makes it interesting.