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.

Monday, April 23, 2012

Havre de Grace retired

The reigning Thoroughbred Horse of the Year, the five-year-old mare Havre de Grace, has been retired with an ankle injury. If the injury is as bad as her connections announced, they certainly did the right thing. But it does make you wonder if their loud complaints about her modest 123 pound weight assignment for the Apple Blossom at Oaklawn, which they dodged, masked other concerns. Maybe they knew she wasn't the same horse she was last year, in spite of her win in her first start of 2012. There was a precedent. 2009 HOY Rachel Alexandra wasn't a fraction as good in her final, shortened, season as she was in her championship year.

It all makes you admire 2010 Horse of the Year Zenyatta all the more. After a short season at 3, she raced full campaigns at four, five, and six, and she was as good the day she retired as she was in her debut. She certainly was one of a kind.

Wednesday, April 11, 2012

Hansen's color

There was an interesting story in the April 11 New York Times about Hansen's extraordinary color. He's registered as "gray or roan" but to most eyes he's a gray who's turned white unusually early. Grays almost always become white if they live long enough but generally not by the spring of their three-year-old year.
The most famous gray of modern times, Native Dancer, appears no less than six times in Hansen's pedigree, but the color comes from elsewhere. His sire Tapit's dam was gray and her color can be traced back to Alcock's Arabian, foaled about 1700. To be fair, so does Native Dancer's color and that of every other gray Thoroughbred of today.
Native Dancer has become a figure of incomparable importance to the modern Thoroughbred, appearing in the pedigree of almost every successful horse foaled in recent years. If they don't have Native Dancer blood, like AP Indy, they are immediately bred to mares who do. I think if you examine the bloodlines of every Kentucky Derby contender you will find the Gray Ghost. But you won't find his color, as least not because of him. His genetic importance is mostly due to two horses, his chestnut son Raise A Native and his bay grandson Northern Dancer, and they inherited--and passed on--his speed and the ability to carry it a distance but not his coat color.

Monday, April 9, 2012

Derby Picture Shapes Up

After this weekend's three-year-old races you could make a strong argument for any of four horses as the likely winner of the 2012 Kentucky Derby. Gemologist and Alpha in the Wood Memorial as well as I'll Have Another and Creative Cause in the Santa Anita Derby were all impressive, with Gemologist the most impressive of all.

In fact, Gemologist ticks all the boxes. He was good at two, better at three, bred on his sire's side at least to get the distance and had his final prep start four weeks before the big day. Possibly most important is the fact that he has a win over the sometimes idiosyncratic Churchill Downs track. He ran an excellent Beyer as well.

Somehow, though, I still think I'd take Union Rags if they were giving away free Derby contenders. Sure, he finished third last week in the Florida Derby, but he actually ran a really good race considering the trouble he had. If he wasn't Union Rags and was instead a previously little-known horse, we'd be talking about him as a colt who surely looks like he could get a mile-and-a-quarter. I think what intrigues me is the sudden burst of speed he can come up with. I'm a sucker for horses who have the additional gear and I still think we may see it at Churchill Downs. As for the third-place finish, remember the 1973 Wood. The horse who finished third that year was named Secretariat.