One analytic does not really cull the Derby herd

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He checks a lot of the analytical boxes, and he has Hall of Famer Mike Smith riding him, so it is no wonder Omaha Beach is the favorite in Las Vegas futures markets to win next Saturday's Kentucky Derby. (Churchill Downs photo)

Las Vegas

 

If there is an excuse to be made for failing to pick a Kentucky Derby winner this year, the finger of blame might be pointed at the Florida Derby.

 

Nothing like dashing into America’s biggest race with a defensive attitude toward handicapping. But this mindset was brought on after last month’s Gulfstream Park stroll skewed pace projections for next weekend’s Run for the Roses.

 

The evidence is seen in our annual application of the Final Fractions Theory to try and winnow the Derby field to a handful of legitimate contenders. The problem this year is that this algorithmic scythe does not exactly cull the herd.

 

For the uninitiated, the Final Fractions Theory pioneered by longtime turf writer and publicist Jennie Rees grades the end of the final 1⅛-mile prep for every Derby entry. The theory asks two questions. Did the horse cover the last furlong in that race in 13 seconds or less? And/or did he run the last three furlongs in 38 seconds or less? The theory is a proven way to figure out whether a horse will be competitive extending to 1¼ miles May 4. Of the last 29 Derby winners, 26 got a yes to one of those two questions; 22 got a yes to both.

 

Put all this together, and no fewer than 13 would-be Derby starters next Saturday plus one alternate are left in the mix. They are led by Arkansas Derby winner Omaha Beach (3-1 at the Westgate Las Vegas, 7-2 at William Hill), the consensus favorite in Las Vegas futures markets. He finished at Oaklawn Park in 12.38 seconds over the last furlong and 37.45 over the last three.

 

The other horses that check all the boxes include two from the Florida Derby – the winner Maximum Security (5-1, 8-1) and third-place Code Of Honor (18-1, 10-1). And the runner-up Bodexpress (200-1, 75-1), the first alternate to get in if there is a scratch next week, also fits the profile.

 

The problem is that the early pace of the Florida Derby was slow. Painfully slow. The first three quarters went in 24.42, 48.98 and 1:12.90. The 11 horses had so much fuel left for the last three-eighths of a mile that nine of them finished fast enough to fill the Final Fractions Theory bill.

 

Does that mean the Florida Derby horses should be thrown out? Not at all. The last time that that race was run so slowly was 2013, when Orb used it as a springboard to win the Kentucky Derby. But the slow going early last month at Gulfstream Park taints a very important sample.

 

Even without the doubts caused by the Florida Derby, the Final Fractions Theory does not cull much of the betting herd this year. It looks something like this:

 

12.18  37.01  Cutting Humor

12.38  37.45  Omaha Beach

12.38  37.45  Improbable

12.49  37.79  By My Standards

12.52  35.96  Maximum Security

12.64  37.94  Spinoff

12.73  37.60  Country House

12.75  36.53  Bodexpress (1st alt.)

12.78  36.79  Code Of Honor

12.79 (38.27) Roadster

12.93 (38.46) Plus Que Parfait

12.99 (39.13) Game Winner

12.69 (38.98) Win Win Win

(13.02) 37.32 Master Fencer

- - - - -

(13.07) (39.09) Gray Magician

(13.13) (38.24) Haikal

(13.30) (38.47) Tacitus

(13.31) (39.78) Signalman (2nd alt.)

(13.45) (39.39) Vekoma

(13.48) (39.07) Tax

(14.04) (39.94) War Of Will

(14.13) (40.00) Long Range Toddy

 

But there are horses that the theory legitimately eliminates, including all three from the Wood Memorial – Tacitus (12-1, 8-1), Haikal (60-1, 30-1) and Tax (80-1, 24-1). They plodded home no faster than 13.13 and 38.24 off an honest, early pace, so they leave no optimism that they can get the Derby distance.

 

(There is one fly in the Wood Memorial ointment, though. Johnny Avello of DraftKings Sportsbook points out that if manual chart calls had been used rather than the supposedly über-accurate Trakus, Haikal’s closing fractions would be 13.0 and 37.8. Avello also points out that Trakus was not available for every prep. So mix the timing methods at your own risk.)

 

So what to do to try to winnow the contenders. The best-Beyer optic is another pepper to throw into this gumbo. It seizes on the fact that 25 of the 27 Derby winners since 1992 came into the race with a career-high Beyer Speed Figure of at least 95. But of the 13 plus one still alive under the Final Fractions Theory, only two more are eliminated – maybe. Country House (80-1, 40-1) is definitely out, but Fukuryu Stakes runner-up Master Fencer (100-1, 100-1) does not have a Beyer to his name because he has raced exclusively in Japan.

 

The Quirin Speed Points that quantify early pace provide another handicapping sieve, but they come with the warning that they have stood just a six-year test coinciding with the start of the prep-points system that fills the Derby field (see last week’s column). That said, the last five Derby winners all had designations of “E/P” (early presser), which is Quirinese for pace chaser.

 

If the horses not eliminated by the Final Fractions Theory and best-Beyer standards are put through the Quirin test, then the only ones left are Maximum Security, Roadster (7-2, 6-1), Game Winner (6-1, 6-1), Spinoff (30-1, 30-1), Plus Que Parfait (100-1, 50-1) and the alternate Bodexpress.

 

I can live with that list – and I might just do that on Derby day. But doing so puts a lot of faith in a relatively unproven analytic that is newer than some of the ties that I may wear at Churchill Downs. The fact that it eliminates Omaha Beach is certainly risky, especially when one more optic is considered: favorites have won the last six Derbies.

 

In short, there is a lot more work to do before next Saturday.

 

Ron Flatter’s weekly racing column is posted every Friday morning at VSiN.com and more frequently during coverage of big races. Kentucky Derby columns will appear daily starting Tuesday from Louisville. You may also hear the Ron Flatter Racing Pod, posted Friday mornings at VSiN.com/podcasts with a pop-up also scheduled for Wednesday that will focus on handicapping all 20 horses in the Kentucky Derby. Hall of Famer Mike Smith, who will ride the favorite Omaha Beach in the Derby, is the featured guest from Santa Anita. From Las Vegas, former National Horseplayers Championship Tour winner Jonathon Kinchen of Fox Sports Net offers his opinions about modern betting angles that are popular in racing. The Racehorses by the Letters feature looks at the best ever starting with “Y,” and Ron has a comment about the push to ban race-day Lasix across the nation. The Ron Flatter Racing Pod is also available at Apple, Google, Stitcher and at VSiN.com/podcasts.

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