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Derby Watch: Playing the elimination game

By Ron Flatter  ( 

April 28, 2017 10:05 AM

LAS VEGAS--One horse has been creating quiet noise this week that really may not matter to anyone trying to find a winner next Saturday in the Kentucky Derby.


It is not that Girvin is inconsequential. But at 12-to-1 his quarter crack heard round the racing world does not resonate the way it might have if it had belonged to, say, current favorite Classic Empire.


As young trainer Joe Sharp wrestles with the dilemma of racing Girvin on a tender hoof or skipping the Derby altogether, bettors already had reasons to scratch him off their list of contenders. Those same reasons apply to as many as 14 other horses currently in the Derby field.


This is all about crunching numbers–specifically the finish of Derby horses’ final prep race and the application of some popular speed ratings. These factors suggest that there may be only a half-dozen legitimate candidates to win the roses a week from Saturday.


This process of elimination boils down to remembering three numbers: 13, 38 and 95. So saddle up for a ride through some racing analytics.


Of the last 27 Kentucky Derby winners 24 came in with particularly fast times at the end of their final race beforehand. This was discovered after a trainer at Churchill Downs planted an idea with Jennie Rees, the dean of American turf writers who at the time was with the Courier-Journal in Louisville.


“Phil Thomas came up to me some years ago and said, ‘I bet if you looked at it, horses that won the Derby came fast the last quarter-mile of their last prep,’” Rees said. “The problem is I couldn’t compute that because of how fractions are published for a 1 1/8-mile race. But I could compute the last eighth and the last three-eighths, and I found there is a pattern–definitely.”


What Rees has discovered with those two dozen Derby winners was that they answered yes to at least one of two questions:

  • Did they run the last furlong of their last prep in 13.0 seconds or less?
  • Did they run the last three furlongs of that prep in 38.0 seconds or less?

If the answer to both questions is no, odds are you should scratch that horse off the list to finish first. The only Derby winners since 1990 that defied both parts of what Rees calls her Final Fractions Theory were Silver Charm in 1997, 50-to-1 fluke Mine That Bird in 2009 and Animal Kingdom in 2011. Of the other 24 there were 20 that got a yes to both questions, including last year’s winner Nyquist.


“It doesn’t really tell you who is going to win, but it eliminates some horses,” Rees said. “It exposes the ones that may not want to go that extra eighth of a mile in the Derby. And it shows you horses that later in their career may want to go a mile-and-a-quarter, but maybe they are over the top right now. They have had a hard campaign just to get to the Derby, they have had some of the starch taken out of them, and they didn’t finish up that well in their last prep because their form cycle was on the way down.”


This year the Final Fractions Theory eliminates eight of the 20 horses tentatively set to race in the Derby.


Now throw in the other optic. Andrew Beyer created the Daily Racing Form’s Beyer Speed Figures in 1992 to balance the variables of track conditions and biases with actual race times. Of the 25 runnings of the Kentucky Derby since, 23 were won by horses with a Beyer rating of at least 95 at some point in their careers. Mine That Bird and Animal Kingdom were the two outliers. Nyquist came into last year’s Derby with a best of 101.


Looking through that prism the current Derby field includes nine horses that do not have a good-enough Beyer.


Put together a yes to both ends of the Final Fractions Theory with the minimum Beyer of 95, and only five would-be Derby horses this year meet all the qualifications: Classic Empire (4-to-1 at Wynn), Always Dreaming (7-to-1), Gunnevera (10-to-1), Hence (25-to-1) and State Of Honor (25-to-1). Still not a confirmed starter, Malagacy (65-to-1) nevertheless also qualifies with a :13-or-better final furlong in his last prep and a Beyer of 97.


The same analytics are not so kind to the top two finishers in both the Wood Memorial – Irish War Cry (6-to-1) and Battalion Runner (25-to-1) – and the Santa Anita Derby – Gormley (12-to-1) and Battle Of Midway (35-to-1). They also appear to knock out three other prep winners – McCraken (7-to-1), healthy-or-not Girvin (12-to-1) and J Boys Echo (28-to-1).


Thanks to @DerbyContenders on Twitter, here is the list of the potential Kentucky Derby horses this year including the five just outside the top 20 that could get in with defections above them, their finishing times in their final nine-furlong prep and their best Beyers:




The numbers – or lack of them – lead to questions about some of the 3-year-olds that made an impact during the winter and early spring.


Gormley won the Santa Anita Derby by a half-length, but he plodded home with fractions of 13.5 and 39.7 seconds. Throw in a career-high Beyer of only 94, and he reckons to be a toss from Win tickets next weekend. All this exposed why trainer John Shirreffs used a workout with a stable mate last weekend to try and correct Gormley’s bad race habits – like spending too much energy early and avoiding traffic late.


“The whole point is to get him behind another horse and not be pulling, because if they’re pulling too much they’re using a little bit too much energy,” Shirreffs said. “Then instead of coming around on the outside we want him to come through on the rail. Obviously in the Derby field you’re going to have to split horses somewhere and hopefully you’re going to get close to the rail to save a little ground.”


J Boys Echo had a Beyer of 101 from his win in the Gotham Stakes, but then came a troubled start on his way to a fourth-place finish this month in the Blue Grass. He had a less-than-ideal finish with times of 13.3 and 38.5, failing the Final Fractions Theory test – and adding a painful asterisk.


“He came back with his eye swollen up the next day,” trainer Dale Romans said. “It looked like he went a few rounds with Mike Tyson the next morning. It wasn’t actually the eyeball that was affected. He got hit in the face with something. That had to affect him.”


Conspicuous by his absence from this discussion is Thunder Snow, winner of the UAE Derby in Dubai last month. That was run over a metric equivalent of 9½ furlongs, so the Final Fractions Theory for nine-furlong races does not apply. For what it is worth, though, he ran his last eighth and three-eighths in 12.8 and 37.6. Thunder Snow’s estimated best Beyer rating, though, is only 94, and he comes out of an overseas prep that has yet to produce a horse that has finished better than fifth at Kentucky.


The obvious flaw in the Final Fractions Theory and maybe even the Beyers applies to any horse that was not pushed in a non-competitive stretch drive or even to a front-runner that successfully established a soft pace all the way through a final prep. But few exceptions belie a quarter-century’s worth of evidence that is hard to ignore. If I had paid more attention to it than I had in 2015, I would have kept Dortmund off the top of my exotic bets on the Kentucky Derby that American Pharoah won on his way to the Triple Crown.


“Every time I have tried to beat this system and make excuses for a horse,” Rees said, “it comes back and bites me.”


Girvin gets fitness test this weekend

Presuming he gets that far, Girvin will be given a workout Saturday on his tender right-front hoof to see if he is still fit enough to run in the Derby.


“I wouldn’t be trying to get there if I didn’t think we could do it,” trainer Joe Sharp told the Daily Racing Form. “Each day I’m a little more confident we can do it.”


Going cloak and dagger with the Arkansas Derby winner, Sharp transferred Girvin from Louisville to Lexington last weekend. At the time Sharp said he wanted to put Girvin on Keeneland’s all-weather training track because of incoming rain. But then came a canceled workout Monday and then Wednesday’s discovery that Girvin was wearing a bar shoe. Sharp then admitted Thursday that the quarter crack developed last week.


Looking to have a Derby horse for the first time in his training career, Sharp, 32, said Saturday’s workout at Keeneland would go forward if Girvin continued to show positive progress late this week.


Derby notes: Sáez will ride J Boys Echo

  • Romans chose jockey Luís Sáez to ride J Boys Echo in the Derby, replacing injured Robby Albarado. Sáez, 25, will be in his fifth Derby. His best finish came last year, when he was seventh on Brody’s Cause, also trained by Romans. Albarado broke his left ankle in a riding accident Sunday at Keeneland.
  • Five horses currently set to start the Derby await jockey assignments, including three trained by Todd Pletcher – Patch, Battalion Runner and yet-to-be-confirmed Derby starter Malagacy. The only rider Pletcher has named is John Velázquez on Always Dreaming. Steve Asmussen chose Florent Geroux for Hence but has not announced a rider for Untrapped or for Lookin At Lee, which would get into the Derby if one horse above him defects. Mike Maker has yet to confirm a jockey for Fast And Accurate.
  • In the past week Classic Empire shortened from 9-to-2 to a 4-to-1 Derby favorite at Wynn. The most noteworthy shift came next with Irish War Cry (6-to-1) leapfrogging Always Dreaming (7-to-1). McCraken is also 7-to-1 after being 8-to-1 last week. Gunnevera held his ground at 10-to-1.
  • Wynn has also posted seven pairs of Derby matchups:

                Classic Empire (–155) vs. Girvin ( 135)

                McCraken (–140) vs. Gunnevera ( 110)

                State Of Honor (–135) vs. Battalion Runner ( 105)

                Irish War Cry (–120) vs. Always Dreaming (–110)

                Practical Joke (–140) vs. Gormley ( 110)

                Hence (–120) vs. Patch (–110)

                Tapwrit (–165) vs. J Boys Echo ( 135)

  • Sports celebrities have bought in as minority owners of two Derby horses. Retired race caller Tom Durkin now has a small share of West Point Thoroughbred’s partnership in Always Dreaming. Former Olympic skiing champion Bode Miller purchased a share of Spiral Stakes winner Fast And Accurate. Miller has been building a small stable of horses at Fair Hill in Maryland.
  • Javier Castellano, who will ride Gunnevera in the Derby, and Víctor Espinoza, who will be on board Gormley, were two of the four new inductees into the National Museum of Racing Hall of Fame. Castellano has won the last four Eclipse Awards as America’s best jockey. Espinoza rode American Pharoah to the 2015 Triple Crown. They are joined in the class of 2017 by the late jockey Garrett Gómez and three-time Breeders’ Cup Mile champion Goldikova. Their formal induction comes this summer at Saratoga.
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