How often in this year that deserves to get a big middle finger dropped on it Dec. 31 in Times Square have we all shrugged and accepted its anomalies?
Already delayed in a move that was so 2020, the Kentucky Derby is finally supposed to be held next Saturday in front of zero paying or freeloading fans. When that development was announced last Friday, it was significant for a sport that continued mostly apace this spring and summer while our entire species experienced house arrest. Weighed against the tribulations of this year, the extant racing calendar looks a Post-it Note on an eye-high pile of paperwork.
No one know for sure whether protests against police brutality may derail the Derby the way that they have been the catalyst for boycotts in basketball and baseball. Presuming for the moment that the race will be run, bettors are expected to pour more than a quarter billion dollars into wagers on a field of horses that may number fewer than 20 entries for the first time in 17 years.
Because the race will be contested by 3½-year-olds rather than 3-year-olds, all sorts of algorithms have been scrapped. Because of the extra four months of progress that each horse has made, Beyer and Brisnet and Timeform minimums have to be raised. Never mind unraced at 2; how about unraced until the summer solstice?
What about whether a horse can get the 1¼ miles? The Final Fractions Theory developed by longtime Kentucky turf writer and publicist Jennie Rees should still be a perfect optic for handicappers. Horses that have fit its template for success have won 27 of the last 30 runnings of the Derby, including both the promoted winner Country House and the demoted Maximum Security last year.
Since it is 2020, though, the Final Fractions Theory is like a square peg in, well, not even a round hole. It is in a Tupperware floating off the coast of Mauritania. That is just a wordy way of saying it may be utterly useless even though it did not have to be.
Anyone familiar with the formula may skip this paragraph that is like explaining the rules of baseball to a cricket fan. If a horse covered the last furlong of his final prep before the Derby in 13 seconds or less, or if he ran the last three furlongs in 38 seconds or less, then he shows the ability to go 1¼ miles. And he fits that 27-of-the-last-30 profile of Derby winners.
Oh, there is an important qualifier. The theory works only for final preps that went nine furlongs. It should be a perfectly good barometer whether a horse is 3 or 3½, but it falls apart this year because seven would-be Derby starters raced either 8½ or 10 furlongs in their final preps. Those seven include Tiz The Law and Honor A. P., two of the top three choices in Derby futures.
With his victory three weeks ago at Saratoga in the Travers, Tiz The Law showed he can go 1¼ miles, because the race was 1¼ miles. The Final Fractions Theory is a moot point for him. But what about second-place Caracaro and third-place Max Player? Did their losing the Travers show they cannot get the 1¼ miles? Or could they be forgiven for wilting behind a career-best performance by a horse that already has four Grade 1 wins and is an even-money to odds-on futures favorite to win the Derby?
Conventional wisdom said that Honor A. P. needed more distance than the 8½ furlongs that he went four weeks ago finishing second to Thousand Words in the Shared Belief Stakes at Del Mar. But taking the times of both horses from that race requires mathematical extrapolation that opens the Final Fractions Theory to error.
Shirl’s Speight, the Canadian wild card that got into the Derby without the benefit of a points prep, did not even run his first race until last month. Now 2-for-2, his most recent start resulted in a Grade 3 victory at Woodbine over 8½ furlongs on a synthetic track.
How about Storm The Court? His last prep was a second-place finish nearly three weeks ago in the Grade 3 La Jolla Handicap, an 8½-furlong turf race at Del Mar. Shoving fake dirt and real grass into the Final Fractions Theory is about as useful as running a slice of pizza through a paper shredder.
For what it is worth, here are the possible Derby entrants that went eight furlongs on dirt in their final preps. Their names are preceded by their times for the last furlong and three furlongs of those races. (Their futures at Circa Sports, Station Casinos and William Hill, in order, are in parentheses.)
Meet both 1f and 3f standards:
12.5 37.0 Major Fed (65-1, 75-1, 75-1)
12.7 37.7 Necker Island (125-1, *35-1, 150-1)
12.8 37.3 Art Collector (6-1, 9-2, 9-2)
12.8 37.8 Enforceable (35-1, 30-1, 28-1)
12.9 37.4 Money Moves (not listed)
13.0 37.9 Sole Volante (50-1, 45-1, 50-1)
Meet only 1f standard:
12.8 38.8 Dr Post (20-1, 30-1, 35-1)
13.0 38.7 King Guillermo (17-1, 22-1, 24-1)
13.0 38.8 Ny Traffic (25-1, 35-1, 30-1)
Meets only 3f standard:
13.1 37.9 Attachment Rate (50-1, 75-1, 65-1)
Fail to meet both standards:
13.2 39.0 Authentic (21-2, 10-1, 10-1)
13.2 39.1 Winning Impression (150-1, *35-1, 150-1)
13.6 38.7 Rushie (100-1, *35-1, 150-1)
13.8 38.4 Finnick The Fierce (100-1, *35-1, 125-1)
*Part of mutuel field.
Some may insist on running the other seven horses through flawed rates of exchange that convert their most recent preps into final fractions. So be it. The Travers horses – Tiz The Law, Max Player and Caracaro – had their final quarter-mile times cut in half to fit the formula. The others that raced 8½ furlongs had their final 110 yards extrapolated to 220, making the rash presumption that they were not tiring. All these numbers should come with legal disclaimers.
Meet both 1f and 3f standards:
11.2 35.4 Storm The Court* (80-1, 75-1, 60-1)
12.3 36.7 Tiz The Law** (1-1, 4-5, 4-5)
12.3 37.6 Honor A. P.* (13-2, 7-1, 7-1)
12.3 37.6 Max Player** (35-1, 35-1, 40-1)
12.4 37.4 Caracaro** (32-1, 22-1, 40-1)
12.8 37.5 Shirl’s Speight* (48-1, 60-1, 80-1)
12.8 37.9 Thousand Words* (13-1, 12-1, 12-1)
*Last prep was 8½f. **Last prep was 10f.
Last race on turf. Last race on synthetic.
It is easy to be dubious of the last seven sets of fractions and, for that matter, all the times this year. How, for instance, is it valid to compare the final nine-furlong prep of King Guillermo, which was his runner-up finish four months ago in the Grade 1 Arkansas Derby, with that of Necker Island, which came out of a third-place effort three weeks ago in the ungraded Ellis Park Derby?
More than ever, this may be a year when what horses have done lately, in races or in workouts, carries far more weight than their past performances before this spring. The conclusion here is that anyone married to long-standing trends based on May runnings of the Derby may as well be using a flip phone.
Ron Flatter’s weekly racing column is posted every Friday morning at VSiN.com. You may also hear the Ron Flatter Racing Pod posted Friday mornings at VSiN.com/podcasts. The past and present of the Kentucky Derby come together on the Ron Flatter Racing Pod. Leon Nichols and Calvin Davis of the Project to Preserve African-American Turf History tell stories of the amazing 19th-century Black jockeys and trainers who built the Derby. Trainer Juan Carlos Ávila talks about the four-month layoff that King Guillermo is getting before his run for the roses. Rampart Race and Sportsbook’s Duane Colucci handicaps weekend races. The RFRP is available via Apple, Google, iHeart, Spotify, Stitcher and at VSiN.com/podcasts and is sponsored by 1/ST BET.