The Kentucky Derby is always one of the toughest races of the year to handicap. Twenty horses, all of which are running a mile and a quarter for the first time, typically with several horses with the speed of a sprinter setting a demanding and tiring pace, and all of them relatively lightly raced and still developing -- there are so many variables one has to consider when making a Derby bet.
Handicapping a horse race is an inexact task -- a mixture of art and science. Like any sport, there are basic statistics that clue us in on which horses have performed well and which rank below their peers.
People that look at statistics in most sports talk a lot about the process as opposed to the actual results. Results based analysis, in many instances, is viewed as a poor method of decision making because it precludes the acknowledgement of the part that luck can play in certain situations. Handicapping horse races is somewhat different.
Handicapping and playing the horses, even based on in-depth and equine statistics, is as much about results as it is about process. If your handicapping process is bad, you'll know it by the stack of torn up tickets you leave at your seat at the end of the day. If your handicapping process is good, you're cashing tickets and turning a profit. The proof is in the pudding.
When it comes to the Kentucky Derby, much of the process that handicappers employ for a garden-variety race on a Tuesday afternoon at their local track goes right out the window. At no other time during the year will you find a race like the Derby. Not the Preakness or the Belmont Stakes. Not the Breeders' Cup Classic, or any other major stakes race during the season. The Derby is unique unto itself; as a result, our handicapping process changes.
With that in mind, let's take a look at the 2012 Kentucky Derby. Below are the entries, post positions and morning line odds. Click on the name of a horse to view its contender profile.
Daddy Long Legs
||C. O'Donoghue||A. O'Brien||30/1|
||J. Court||D.W. Lukas||50/1|
Take Charge Indy
||C. Borel||P. Byrne||15/1|
||J. Leparoux||M. Matz||9/2|
||K. Desormeaux||D. Romans||8/1|
|6||Bodemeister||M. Smith||B. Baffert||4/1|
||J. Lezcano||J. Hollendorfer||50/1|
||J. Rosario||M. Harrington||12/1|
||W. Martinez||B. Parboo||50/1|
Daddy Nose Best
||G. Gomez||S. Asmussen||15/1|
||R. Maragh||K. McLaughlin||15/1|
||L. Contreras||M. Casse||30/1|
Went The Day Well
||J. Velazquez||G. Motion||20/1|
||R. Dominguez||M. Maker||10/1|
||J. Castellano||T. Pletcher||6/1|
||R. Bejarano||T. Pletcher||20/1|
||S. Russell||H. Smith||50/1|
||C. Nakatani||S. Asmussen||30/1|
I'll Have Another
||M. Gutierrez||D. O'Neill
||M. Garcia||B. Baffert||50/1|
|21||My Adonis||E. Trujillo||K. Breen||50/1|
On paper, the most impressive colt in the Kentucky Derby is Bob Baffert's Bodemeister. He was the dominant winner of the G1-Arkansas Derby in his last start, and he's put the highest and most consistent speed figures of any of his rivals this spring. However, Bodemeister is no lock to win the Derby primarily due to several of concerns: pace, post and history.
Pace: In all four of Bodemeister's career races, he either ran on or just off of the lead in the early stages. If he's on the lead going into the first turn of the Derby, he's going to have an extremely tough time winning because Trinniberg is not going to let him have an easy lead.
Post: Drawn in the No. 6 position, Bodemeister is sandwiched in-between Take Charge Indy, Union Rags, Creative Cause and Trinniberg. That leaves him with very little room for error. On the positive side, Bodemeister generally breaks well from the gate and he's got enough natural speed that jockey Mike Smith shouldn't have to use him too much in the first quarter mile.
History: Bodemeister never raced as a two-year-old, making his debut in mid-January at Santa Anita. No horse has won the Kentucky Derby without racing as a two-year-old since Apollo in 1882, 130 years ago. That's a lot of history to overcome.
Now, if you want to look on the bright side (which I think we should), many of the old Kentucky Derby axioms have fallen by the wayside over the past decade. It used to be that a horse needed three prep races in order to win the Derby, or have a race within a specific number of days, or have raced a specified number of times as a juvenile. One by one, all of those rules have been broken.
The manner in which horses are trained and raced in America is dramatically different than just 20 or 30 years ago. Juvenile form has little to no bearing on how a horse will potentially develop as a three-year-old or four-year-old. The day is coming when we'll have a Derby winner that didn't race as a juvenile. It's just a matter of when.
This year's Kentucky Derby comes down to what happens in the first quarter to half mile. If horses like Hansen, Bodemeister, Union Rags, Take Charge Indy, Gemologist, I'll Have Another and Creative Cause decide to chase Trinniberg hard in the opening fractions, the race will set up perfectly for a closer to kick on to victory in the final furlongs. If, however, one or two of those horses are able to rate just off of the pace, perhaps three to five lengths behind the frontrunner, then I think we could see a stalker/mid-pack runner come out on top.
Out of those horses I mentioned above that are likely to go somewhat hard early, I believe Creative Cause, Union Rags and I'll Have Another are the best bets to rate off the pace, avoiding a complete meltdown scenario.
After the post position draw, Union Rags trainer Michael Matz suggested that they might go hard from the gate to secure a stalking position. But I think that might overstate their plan. A quick break from the gate is essential, but Julien Leparoux is typically a very patient rider, so I'd be surprised if he guns Union Rags to the front.
Creative Cause was content to sit down on the rail in the Santa Anita Derby, something he probably won't have to worry about Saturday. With Trinniberg to his outside, Joel Rosario likely will let Trinniberg get in front of him and then tuck in just a couple of lengths behind for the stalking trip.
I'll Have Another, breaking from the far outside post, should have every opportunity to move toward the rail in the first quarter mile. If he can avoid going four or five wide into the first turn, he should have an excellent chance to run a big race.
Of the closers in this race, I like Dullahan the best, with a small eye towards Alpha (not a true closer, but an off-the-pace horse) as colts that might be able to get a piece of the action in the final furlongs. Churchill Downs has a very long homestretch which gives a closer like Dullahan a lot of ground to make one big run in the lane.
If the Kentucky Derby was just a matter of selecting the best horse, I'd pick Bodemeister and call it a day. Unfortunately, the Derby isn't that simple. The pace, trip and distance are too important to simply pick a winner based on talent.
I won't be a bit surprised if Bodemeister wins the Derby, but the wagering gods have me looking at others for a bit more value. I'll have some money on Bode, but he won't be my prime bet.
The majority of my plays on Saturday are going to involve putting Dullahan and Alpha in the top spot, with Union Rags, Creative Cause, I'll Have Another, and El Padrino on the bottom. In Pick 4 and Pick 5 wagers, I'll use all of those horses, along with Bodemeister.
With a 20 horse field, you have to draw the line somewhere. You'll drive yourself crazy if you try to cover every conceivable horse that you like "just a little bit". Instead, figure out what you like the best, and bet it hard. If you're right, you'll be counting cash. If not? Well, there's always the Preakness.
Check out this outstanding documentary on Dullahan from SB Nation Studios.