Saturday, April 28, 2012

So how do you pick a Kentucky Derby winner?

In the spring both lovers of Thoroughbred racing and casual fans turn their thoughts to one thing: who’s going to win the Kentucky Derby? In early summer the question expands to: who’s going to win the Belmont Stakes? And in the fall, it’s the Breeders’ Cup Classic that draws the question.

The answer to each of the questions is likely to be the same. It may not be the same horse, but it will be the same kind of horse. Here are the principles, with a couple of caveats. The first is that there are exceptions, especially in the presence of a superstar horse. The second thing to keep in mind is that I rarely actually bet, but I do like to pick winners. I’ve been involved with horses and in horse racing most of my adult life and I know too much about the unexpected and inexplicable things horses can do, so I don’t like to risk real money on them.

My first and most important rule is this. A horse bred to go a distance will win these races. In the case of the Derby, none of these young three-year-olds will have ever raced at a mile and a quarter. In the Belmont Stakes, none will ever before have raced at a mile and a half. In the Classic, some may have started at a mile and a quarter but most of their races will have been at shorter distances. So their race records, usually the most important guideline for picking winners, don’t apply quite so clearly.

The horse shouldn’t have been bred strictly for stamina—there has to be some speed in there—but he can’t have purely sprinting blood. The winners usually come out of the group that has horses proven to be able to win at a distance somewhere in the first three generations but also has horses known for speed in that same part of the pedigree. Sometimes horses bred to go short are remarkably alluring, coming out of a spectacular prep race early in the year. Don’t fall for them.

Here’s my second rule. The horse should never have raced more recently than three weeks earlier, and a gap of four or five is far preferable. I believe this is the primary reason there’s been no Triple Crown winner since 1979. The Belmont States comes just three weeks after the Preakness, which is held just two weeks after the Derby.

Third:  the winner of these longer races usually likes to run a couple of lengths off the leader for most of his races. A horse who has to come from far behind rarely gets up in time, even though he would appear to have saved energy in the early going. Not every horse is Zenyatta, who could do it. And occasionally a horse, even a lesser one, will win after leading the entire way, but it’s rare.

Finally, I believe that experience over the racetrack matters and matters a lot. All else being equal, the horse that wins the Kentucky Derby will probably have raced at Churchill Downs previously, the horse that wins the Belmont Stakes will have had experience with that long stretch in an earlier race, and a horse familiar with whatever surface the Classic is being run on will have an advantage.

There are sources for this information.,, and the Daily Racing Form's will give you information about stamina and previous races. You'll find that several horses may qualify. I would then eliminate those whose jockeys have little big race experience,

Occasionally you must also pay attention to post position, which usually doesn't matter in these longer races, Drawing into the auxiliary gate is a disadvantage for any horse, particularly those who like to race on the lead. Take all these factors into consideration and you'll have a short list of horses who can win. Unfortunately, this method (or any method) can't tell you who actually will finish first. That's wny they take bets.

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