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My Kentucky Derby Top 10
There are far too many Derby top 10 lists, but with the futures pool in full swing I thought I would give you guys some insight into who I like and who I would stay away from. The Derby futures pool is a good way to make money, but only if you can stay away from the hype.
10. Bayern: The fact that this horse has ran off the screen is impressive, but what is really impressive is how he does it. He runs his final quarter of a mile around 24 flat. He usually has plenty left in the tank and should get the distance.
9. Cairo Prince: When I was a teenager, I made the mistake of playing Favorite Trick in my Derby exacta. This horse could be Favorite Trick’s long lost brother. If my memory serves me correctly, the derby wasn’t too kind to Favorite Trick and probably won’t be to Cairo Prince either.
8. Intense Holiday: Vicar’s in Trouble is a legitimately good racehorse, so anyone who makes him look like an allowance horse at Golden Gate fields has my respect. Intense Holiday has my respect.
7. Top Billing: Some make too much out of the track bias while other make too little. The way I see it, the leaders ran the first ¾ in 1:10 but it felt like 1:11. This means that Top Billing closed into an honest pace and ran a decent race. He is a derby contender, but there are more impressive horses out there.
6. Mexicoma: I am going to catch a lot of flak for this one. I know that Mexicoma ran a very similar race to Top Billing’s last time out. I also know that it was at the same track and against slightly less intimidating company. The reason I have Mexicoma so high is because he wants a mile and a quarter; he craves the distance. The run for the roses is occasionally won by talent deficient horses who crave distance and at least Mexicoma fits that profile. In short, he has more upside than Top Billing at this point.
5. Shared Belief: I am a huge fan of Hollendorfer’s methods and I like that this horse brings regular people to the track. So yeah, I gave him the five spot.
4. Honor Code: Honor Code seems to be working well and the injury may have been a blessing in disguise as he will have two preps and be fresh for the derby. I like how this horse just chips away at the leaders and has that deep closing style that seems to work well at Churchill Downs, but we won’t know how hot he is until he runs in the Rebel.
3. Candy Boy: He used to be known as the horse who got his butt kicked against Shared Belief until he started doing some but kicking of his own. This is the best horse in the west right now and is only getting better. I seriously considered putting him at number one, but I’m not sure if he beat great horses or glorified allowance horses in the Bob Lewis.
2. Strong Mandate: We know he has the talent. He took the scenic route in the Southwest Stakes and still finished second to Tapiture. My worry with this horse is that he likes to get in trouble and doesn’t have the acceleration to get out of it. He is the type of horse that needs a hall of fame ride in order to win the derby.
1. Tapiture: I honestly believe that we just saw the two three year olds in training run against one another in the Southwest Stakes. Unlike Strong Mandate, Tapiture saved ground and he rated brilliantly! He listened to his jockey’s cue and was full of run coming down the stretch, which leads me to believe he can get the distance.
Next week will be the start of a three part series on the training regimen of a derby champion.
When Rags to Riches won the Belmont Stakes it marked the first time a brother-sister duo both captured a jewel of the Triple Crown. Besides the fact that the odds of one mare throwing two Belmont Stakes winners is about the same as the odds of winning Powerball, the event underscored the importance of the female line when it comes to winning a leg of the triple crown.
There’s a tendency in racing to let data dictate the discussion rather than the other way around. This is the primary reason sires have been overvalued in pedigree analysis and broodmares have been undervalued. The dosage index, which I have commented on in an earlier piece, classifies only the male members in a horse’s pedigree. The problem with this is that stamina tends to run along the tail female line. This means that going forward it is important to research the female families of the derby contenders, but we must first understand how to properly do this.
Luckily for us all, bloodlines.net has some great diagrams on all of the female families. I looked through them and identified seven exceptional families whose descendants have had success in classics time and time again. This doesn’t mean that their descendants are a lock to win this year’s Kentucky Derby, it just means that you should pay closer attention to the Derby contenders who descend from these families. I have listed the family number, the famous descendants and a rating from one to ten, with ten being the highest, on how relevant I believe the family currently is.
With the gap between the great families and the less than great families getting wider each year, it will be interesting to see how this angle plays out in this year’s derby. I will not get into the descendants of these seven families as yet because it is too early, but I hope to discuss this angle in depth as the derby approaches.
I remember having a beer with my friends and watching the 2011 Kentucky Derby when one of my friends asked me if horses know if they won or lost. Now, most of you probably know the answer to that question, but some still do not. What is even more frightening is that some people who go to the track every single day do not know that there is a mental aspect to horse racing.
The great Carl Nafzger always compared his horses to football players, and like most things he said there was a subtle brilliance to this seemingly simple analogy. Football players – especially wideouts and slot recievers will mainly succeed based on their physical capabilities; however, there is the task of keeping your eye trained on catching a football when you know that a lineman is coming after you. The second task is primarily mental and separates the good ones from the great ones. It is a secondary talent much like a horse’s willingness to fight inside the eight pole, but is necessary in order to accomplish greatness.
To play with Mr. Nafzger’s analogy a little bit more, a receiver who shuns violence has a limited amount of routes that they can successfully run; likewise a horse who hates getting bumped and fighting inside the eighth pole has only one path to victory. He basically needs a clean break and as to try and lead the field, take a breather at the three-eighths pole and run like lightning down the stretch in order to effectively end the race before he gets to the eighth pole. This is a very specific scenario if you ask me.
Two horses who epitomize the scared wide receiver are Verrazano and Normandy Invasion. These are probably the second and third most talented horses in training right now, but they hate contact-they hate a dogfight.
Verrazano is lucky to have Johnny V as his jockey. The man is an excellent judge of pace and always seems to find a hole when his horse needs running room. Unfortunately for Johnny V. he hasn’t had much success with Verrazano because the horse must be on the lead regardless of how suicidal the fractions may be. This is why Verrazano has such a spotty record and will probably continue to struggle. After all, you don’t see too many horses winning wire to wire on turf tracks in Europe.
Normandy Invasion embodies the herd mentality. Where most horses get brave on the lead he wilts. Take a look at last year’s Kentucky Derby. Most horses with the lead at the top of the stretch in the most electrifying moment in sports would have at least held on the to lead for another 200 yards. I really think that a win bet on Normandy Invasion is basically a donation without the tax benefits. The shame is if he develops that killer instinct the rest of the handicap division will be in huge trouble.
On the flipside of all of this is Zenyatta. Here is a horse who won nineteen race and lost one – and that was by half a nose! The thing is, in nine of those races she started her run too late and really should have lost, but her fighting spirit carried her to victory. Being a descendant of Street Cry, she exhibits extreme alpha tendencies, which helped her defeat every horse she has ever raced against, except Blame.
Now, I don’t want you to start anthropomorphizing these animals to the point where you become the guy on Horseplayers who was “hanging out” with Goldenscents. However, I do want you to acknowledge that the sport of kings is a mentally taxing endeavor and adjust your handicapping accordingly.
I’ve always thought that the dosage index was a pretty underrated tool for handicapping a derby horse, but when Bruno de Julio started singing its praises I began to pay even more attention to the dosage index. The following is a highly unscientific study. In order to meet the standards of a scientific study, I would’ve have had to take on the type of research that takes at least 6 months to complete.
For those who do not know, the dosage index is a numerical point system that categorizes a horse’s male ancestors. I won’t get into the specifics, but basically there are 5 categories: Brilliant, Intermediate, Classic, Solid and Professional. In order to even be included on the list, a sire had to have excelled at the highest levels of racing, but the distances he excelled at are what make the difference. If he excelled at 6 furlongs he was “brilliant.” If he excelled at 14 furlongs he was considered “professional.” If he truly demonstrated the ideal combination of speed and stamina he was considered “classic.”
For quite some time people have looked at the ratio of the points in the first two categories and the classic category and divided them by the last two categories and the classic category. This is the wrong way to read dosage indexes. Take a look at the chart below and tell me if you notice a pattern.
The first five horses delivered-in my opinion- the best Kentucky Derby performances of the modern era. The bottom chart shows five horses that were talented enough to compete in the Breeder’s Cup Sprint, but with the exception of Secret Circle, could not stay 6 furlongs on a speed-favoring track.
Throughout history, we have looked at the dosage index in terms of ratio’s. We took the points on the left in relation to the points on the right. Well, what if we looked at the dosage index as a weighted point system? What if we multiplied the numbers in the Brilliant and Intermediate categories by one, the number in the Classic category by two and the numbers in the Solid and Professional Categories by four then added all five values together?
Does this new chart show that the dosage points are the be-all end-all of everything? Absolutely not. What this chart does show is that a weighted point system gives a fairly accurate representation of the potential of each horse. This system shows that the dosage system had the right idea with the wrong execution. For the statistics geeks out there, I would imagine the correlation between a horse’s dosage index and his ability to get ten furlongs to be .1 or so. I would imagine the correlation between a horses dosage points on my weighted points system and its ability to get ten furlongs to be .6 or so; maybe not the greatest handicapping tool ever created, but a great tool to add to the arsenal. For our next test, we will look at the 2007 Kentucky Derby. I did not choose this race for any other reason other than I am a huge fan of Street Sense. If you want to apply my weighted point system to another Kentucky Derby feel free.
These are the un-weighted points. When weighing the categories appropriately, Hard Spun and Tiago dominate the field. Now, we didn’t get our derby winner did we? The point of all of this was not necessarily to get a Derby winner but rather to have an educated guess on which horses to throw out and which horses to pay attention to.
The biggest part of handicapping races is knowing when to bet against the favorite, and a poor distance pedigree is a huge red flag. In the next couple of blog posts we will be focusing on the Triple Crown trail and figuring out how to play the next round of the Kentucky Derby future book. You have been warned!
Somewhere along the way, corrupt trainers took the mantle away from lovable wiseguy handicappers as the face of the industry. This changing of the guard certainly hasn’t done the sport any favors. I was at a dinner party when I overheard a young blonde tell one of her girlfriends that Big Brown almost ran in the Belmont but didn’t because he had laminitis. Of course, you know that he had tendinitis, but you get my point. Somewhere out there is a young blonde woman who actually thought that Big Brown almost contested the Belmont Stakes despite a deadly illness. It goes without saying that if you did a word association game with someone off the street and said horse racing, the first image that would pop into their heads is someone who looked like Ron Jeremy sending out horses with laminitis.
So, needless to say I was skeptical when I heard that the Esquire network was doing a show on the modern handicapper, but apparently there are times when you can expect the unexpected.
Horseplayers takes a look at the world of thoroughbred racing from the world of professional handicappers, but references to complex handicapping algorithms are few and far between. The goal of horseplayers is to be contrarian and take the position that despite what mainstream media tells you, watching horses go around an oval is a hell of a lot of fun. The show does this by introducing us to wise guys like John Conte from Aqueduct. He’s the type of guy who chats up the hottest waitress at the bar, but ends it early so he can get up the next morning to watch workouts. Another character that I liked was two Breeders’ Cup Handicapping Championship runner-up, Christian Hellmers. He kept picking Goldenscents all year because he hung out with the horse and supposedly got a good vibe from him. Christian is the prototypical oddball West Coast handicapper that I can’t get enough of. He’s the guy that won’t bet a filly if she’s running against males and looks passive in the post parade. In other words, Christian is not a pure statistical handicapper- he’s too much of a badass for something like that.
John and Christian are why Horseplayers gets it right, and HBO’S Luck got it wrong. This sport may be down on its luck and experience unbelievable corruption at times, but it still attracts the coolest people in the country. I don’t have to tell you how many parts of the brain a legitimate handicapping process uses. If you are reading this, you are probably the type of person who knows that properly handicapping a horse race is like doing bench presses with your mind- it’s not for the faint of heart. The interesting thing is that the only people who want to do bench presses via telepathy are people who are quirky fun and have a story to tell. Horseplayers chooses to focus on these people and lets the corrupt trainer with the 35% win percentage fade to the background, even if it is just for one hour each week.
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