The name Phil Thomas does not appear in present-day past performances. The last race on his training record was run more than three years ago. His last winner was at the end of the summer of 2013. But something he said resonates to this day with horseplayers handicapping the Kentucky Derby.
“I bet if you looked at it,” he said, “horses that won the Derby came fast the last quarter-mile of their last prep.”
That was how Jennie Rees recalled a seminal conversation years ago with Thomas. Now a publicist for racetracks and a horsemen’s association, Rees back then was a respected turf writer for The Courier-Journal. She was a turf writer. She is still respected, more now than ever.
Thomas’s words were the proverbial bug that went in Rees’s ear, and it resulted in her creation of the Final Fractions Theory, a proven prism to separate potential Derby winners from flashy pretenders. It was not without some finagling of Thomas’s original theorem about the final quarter of a horse’s last prep at nine furlongs.
“The problem is I couldn’t compute that because of how fractions are published for a 1⅛-mile race,” Rees said when she explained the theory in 2017. “But I could compute the last eighth and the last three-eighths, and I found there is a pattern, definitely.”
Pattern? It is nearly a requirement. Of the last 31 Derby winners, 27 met one of the following conditions in their final prep race:
* Finish the last furlong in 13.0 seconds or less.
* Finish the last three furlongs in 38.0 seconds or less.
It is another way to answer the biggest question coming into a typical Kentucky Derby. Can a 3-year-old horse that has never before raced more than 1⅛ miles be effective adding 220 yards? The Final Fractions Theory is a way to predict that. If a horse had a fast finish at the end of his last prep, chances are he will carry that momentum that extra furlong in the Derby.
Last year the theory did not work, but that was because the 3-year-olds were really 3½-year-olds, and there was not so much mystery about that last eighth of a mile. The Kentucky Derby was a September anomaly, complete with horses that had already gone 1¼ miles before they even arrived at Churchill Downs. Against Tiz the Law, a proven winner at the Derby distance, Authentic was not supposed to be able to go 10 furlongs. Oops.
So rewrite that to say 27 of the last 30 springtime renewals of the Derby in which the Final Fractions Theory has worked.
Of the horses expected to be entered in Tuesday’s draw, there are 13 that meet at least one of the FFT criteria. Best-priced at 3-1 in Las Vegas futures, Essential Quality is among the nine that meet both. He went a blistering 12.0 seconds in the last furlong and 36.3 in the last three of his narrow victory this month in the Blue Grass Stakes.
Medina Spirit, trainer Bob Baffert’s best hope for a record seventh Kentucky Derby win, went 13.3 and 39.0 to finish his second-place finish in the Santa Anita Derby. Cross him off.
Narrowing the list of potential Derby winners to 13 is only the first step. Since VSiN took on the task of tracking the data in Rees’s FFT, some steps have been added.
Take the figs. Please. Set the bar for the Daily Racing Form’s Beyer Speed Figures at 95 and Churchill Downs’ BRIS Speed Ratings at 100. Those also have proven to be winning baselines. Of the last 29 Derby winners, 26 came into the race with a career-best Beyer of at least 95. Eighteen of the last 21 had a BRIS of at least 100. Country House in 2019, asterisks and all, was the last exception to both.
Apply the minimum Beyers and BRIS, and that list of 13 horses is reduced to four – Essential Quality (12.0 last furlong, 36.3 last three, 97 Beyer, 102 BRIS), Louisiana Derby winner Hot Rod Charlie (*12.5, *37.5, 99, 100), undefeated Santa Anita Derby winner Rock Your World (12.9, 38.5, 100, 102) and Blue Grass runner-up Highly Motivated (12.5, 36.7, 97, 102).
Whoa. How did Rock Your World’s 38.5 get in there? And what is the deal with the asterisks on Hot Rod Charlie?
First thing’s first. The key word in the FFT is “or.” Did a horse stay within 13.0 for the last furlong – “or” – 38.0 for the last three? One or the other is fine, and that is why Rock Your World makes the cut. Only 23 of the last 31 Derby winners met both thresholds, so the FFT double is not historically as successful.
Then the asterisks. Hot Rod Charlie gets them, because the Louisiana Derby was extended last year to 9½ furlongs. That was to try and make the race more equitable for horses drawn wide that were facing a quick run to the first turn at Fair Grounds. For the FFT, that required extrapolation of the chart times – and a slippery statistical slope. Once math is used to concoct new figures, handicappers enter at their own risk.
The same thing happens when trying to grade undefeated Helium’s last prep, the 8½-furlong Tampa Bay Derby. Are we really sure he would have run that last furlong in 12.9 seconds if the time for those last 110 yards was not simply multiplied by two? Of course not.
And what about Like The King’s 12.7 and 37.8 at the end of the Jeff Ruby Steaks? How do times on a synthetic track translate? Animal Kingdom was an exception to the Final Fractions Theory when he finished first on the Turfway Park plastic 10 years ago on his way to winning the roses. That sample size is way too small to be reliable, especially on a racetrack that has not been much of a proving ground for the Derby.
Critics say the FFT does not take into account horses that are wrapped up late in certain victories. But history has graded it. Again, 27 for 31. That goes back to when Bush was president. The first Bush. It was so long ago that the twin spires might still have been the tallest structures at Churchill Downs.
Oh, one more thing. This is about to be the ninth Kentucky Derby that has used a points system to qualify horses from designated prep races. Of the first eight runnings, Orb in 2013 and Country House in 2019 were the only closers to have won. That is quantified by their Quirin Speed Points or, simply put, an E or E/P designation for the forwardly placed. The small sample says horses are better served racing near the front all the way around the track rather than waiting until late to come in from the clouds. Eleven of the 20 would-be starters have E or E/P designations, and again they include Essential Quality, Hot Rod Charlie, Rock Your World and Highly Motivated.
That is it. If the formula that Thomas inspired, Rees authored and VSiN refined holds any water, one of those four horses will win next Saturday in the Kentucky Derby.
If you believe that is a sure thing, I happen to have a housing tract underneath the Big Four Bridge available at a nice price.
Racing notes and opinions
As if the field for the Kentucky Derby was not already watered down by defections, workouts in southern California on Saturday may signal whether Dream Shake and Get Her Number start in next Saturday’s Kentucky Derby. Trainer Peter Eurton said the alternative for Dream Shake is the Pat Day Mile on the Derby undercard. Peter Miller will breeze Get Her Number at San Luis Rey Downs before making a decision. If either horse is aimed elsewhere, Hozier could come in for Baffert, who restored the maiden winner’s status to “possible” for the Derby. If two openings are created, Kentucky Jockey Club winner Keepmeinmind, out of the money in his two starts as a 3-year-old, would be next in line.
What a difference a week makes. Next weekend features America’s most prestigious race. This weekend’s top feature by class is at Santa Anita. The Grade 2 Santa Margarita on Saturday is for older fillies and mares – all five of them. They include the likely favorite As Time Goes By, who comes back from finishing second to Swiss Skydiver in the Beholder Mile.
The most interesting race to me Saturday is the nine-furlong Federico Tesio Stakes at Pimlico, a “win and you’re in” for next month’s Preakness Stakes. With so much speed in the race, my pick is the closer Tiz Mandate. He gets blinkers after finishing second in a mile stakes in February at Laurel Park. Considered to be the traditional prep for the Preakness, the Tesio returns to Pimlico for the first time in five years. It was moved out of Laurel last week because of poor track conditions there. Deputed Testamony in 1983 was the last horse to pull off the Tesio-Preakness double.
Correcting what a Las Vegas casino boss said in last week’s column on the Churchill Downs-Nevada Pari-Mutuel Association imbroglio: Track announcer Bill Downes pointed out that Indiana Grand is actually owned by Caesars, not Boyd Gaming. And double-checking the recent past, Delta Downs has been available for betting in Nevada, so it does not count among the off-limits tracks.
It snowed here Wednesday, when Muhammad Ali Airport got 1.8 inches of fresh powder. On April 21, no less. My wife and I miss winter, craving it the whole four years we lived in Las Vegas. But we would just as soon restrict the cold weather to that time between the solstice in December and the equinox in March.
Ron Flatter’s racing column is available every Friday morning at VSiN.com and more frequently during coverage of big events. You may also hear the Ron Flatter Racing Pod posted Friday mornings at VSiN.com/podcasts. Now based in Louisville, Ky., the RFRP this week features trainer Steve Asmussen, who discusses his Kentucky Derby and Oaks horses, and Los Angeles Times special correspondent John Cherwa, who talks about how racing coverage has changed for him in recent years. There is also Twitter feedback about the dispute that prevents Nevada betting on racetracks controlled by Churchill Downs. The RFRP is available now at iHeart, Apple, Google, Spotify, Stitcher and at VSiN.com/podcasts. It is sponsored by 1/ST BET.