The end matters more than the start in gauging Derby preps

Maximum_Security_the_FL_Derby_credit_Leslie_Martin
Ridden by a celebrating Luís Sáez, Maximum Security won last Saturday’s Florida Derby. That stamped him as one of the future-book favorites – albeit tentative – to win next month’s Kentucky Derby. (Leslie Martin photo courtesy of Gulfstream Park)

The commonly heard complai ... – er – observation about this Kentucky Derby prep season is that there is no way to figure out which horse should be the favorite next month.

Consider the bare facts. Favorites have lost nine of the last 10 U.S. points preps. Odds-on favorites are no better than 5-for-12. Seven of the 30 preps on American soil have been won by double-digit long shots. Two of the three worth 100 points for finishing first have been won by horses with odds longer than 20-1.

The list of 3-year-olds poised to become the definitive favorite in Kentucky Derby futures has come and gone through Hidden Scroll and Instagrand and Game Winner with none stepping up to grab the reins of the betting market. While that may be fine for value players, it makes it difficult to establish a horse to beat May 4.

It is convenient to blame the crazy pace in most of the races over the past month. But those races were 110 yards shorter than they are this weekend, when the Wood Memorial, Blue Grass Stakes and Santa Anita Derby send three winners and probably three second-place horses to Churchill Downs next month.

“The last prep race is the most important race,” trainer Bob Baffert told reporters in a conference call this week. “That’s when we find out how they are seeded. When they go a mile-and-an-eighth, that separates. The cream rises to the top.”

It is already starting to rise enough for Florida Derby winner Maximum Security to share the shortest price with Baffert’s 2018 juvenile champion Game Winner in the Kentucky Derby futures market. They are each 4-1 at William Hill, 5-1 at the Wynn Las Vegas and 8-1 on the morning line for Churchill Downs’ final pari-mutuel Derby pool from noon Friday to 6 p.m. Sunday EDT.

That cream also rises not at the beginning of the race but at the end. And it is there where meaningful trends are found. Trends that are not apparent when reading the fractions from start to finish. Instead, they reveal themselves reading from the finish back.

Six horses currently in the Road to the Kentucky Derby top 20 fit the profile of nearly every Derby winner of the past generation. That means having finished their final preps with a time no slower than 13 seconds for the last furlong or 38 seconds for the last three. They also must have had a career-best Beyer Speed Figure of at least 95. That list boils down to:

12.18  37.01   95  Cutting Humor (1st, Sunland Derby)

12.49  37.79   97  By My Standards (1st, Louisiana Derby)

12.52  35.96 102  Maximum Security (1st, Florida Derby)

12.57  36.71   95  Code Of Honor (3rd, Florida Derby)

12.84  37.94   95  Spinoff (2nd, Louisiana Derby)

12.62  36.46   96  Bodexpress (2nd, Florida Derby)

What complicates the application of this trend, which was discovered years ago by longtime turf writer Jennie Rees, is the Florida Derby. Where the pace has been suicidal in most of the past month’s preps, it was alarmingly slow last week at Gulfstream Park.

“This is the time that horses can make drastic steps forward from one race to another,” trainer Todd Pletcher told VSiN. “You start focusing on getting your horses prepared and trying to analyze the pace scenario and come up with a strategy that makes sense. A lot of time that can all go out the window. You need to have jockeys on board who have the confidence to call an audible.”

The same applies to betting the Kentucky Derby. Few preps in recent years have been run as slowly as the Florida Derby, so there was plenty of closing speed on the table. Enough to overload the list of horses that flashed fast times to finish their nine-furlong runs. Put it this way. The undefeated Maximum Security seems worthy of serious consideration to wear the roses next month. But does anyone really think that Bodexpress will be the first maiden to win the Derby in 86 years?

By My Standards and Pletcher’s colts Cutting Humor and Spinoff were the products of much faster paces in their most recent races, so their closing times would seem to come with more credibility. But at 22-1 as a maiden winner coming into the Louisiana Derby, shouldn’t By My Standards’s performance be regarded as a fluke? And did the lack of quality competition make Cutting Humor’s Sunland Derby victory look better than it really was?

Louisiana Derby runner-up Spinoff, though, is another matter.  “He put himself in good stalking position against honest fractions,” Pletcher said. “To me when you see 3-year-olds run faster than older horses did in the New Orleans Handicap at the same distance earlier on the card, that’s a pretty positive indication that it’s a strong race.”

Like college football rankings every October, an early list of the best prep finishes lacks context until most of the meaningful showdowns have happened. Saturday will provide that meaning like a football weekend before Thanksgiving – and it will probably reveal more viable candidates to be a Derby favorite.

As Baffert put it, “This is our version of March Madness.”

And like the teams in the NCAA Tournament, it matters less how the season starts as how it finishes.

Racing notes and opinions

Tampa winner Tacitus is Wood favorite. Coming off a victory in the Tampa Bay Derby in his graded-stakes debut, Tacitus (5-2) is the morning-line favorite to win the $750,000 Grade 2 Wood Memorial on Saturday at 6 p.m. EDT at Aqueduct. Trained by Bill Mott and ridden by José Ortiz, Tacitus is likely to rate the pace from mid-pack. Haikal (7-2) has won three in a row including the Gotham on the same track, and Withers winner Tax (9-2) figures to try and set the pace along with 15-length maiden winner Hoffa’s Union (6-1). Pletcher’s colt Outshine (6-1) was second in the Tampa Bay Derby and also figures to be in mid-pack early in the race. My ticket will be keyed by Tacitus and include Outshine and Hoffa’s Union with a long-shot play on two-time stakes runner-up Joevia (30-1).

Vekoma looks for Keeneland breakthrough. After closing to finish third against the hot pace in the Fountain of Youth, Vekoma (9-5) is the likely favorite for the $1 million Grade 2 Blue Grass Stakes on Saturday at 6:23 p.m. at Keeneland. Trained by George Weaver, he will be ridden for the first time by Javier Castellano. Vekoma is expected to race from off the pace in a 14-horse field that does not have much speed outside Jeff Ruby winner Somelikeithotbrown (10-1) and D. Wayne Lukas’s front-runner Market King (20-1). Third in the Tampa Bay Derby, Win Win Win (7-2) will be out to prove that he did not peak as a 2-year-old sprinter. Trainer Mark Casse is high on the chances of Sir Winston (15-1) as the preps get longer. I will be keying my tickets around Vekoma with Win Win Win and Sir Winston underneath.

Game Winner will be odds-on at Santa Anita. Baffert and his fellow Hall of Fame trainer Jerry Hollendorfer send two runners each into the small but well-regarded field of six for the $1 million Grade 1 Santa Anita Derby scheduled for Saturday at 6:30 p.m. EDT. If he scores a bounce-back win after last month’s narrow loss in the Rebel, Game Winner (4-5) will probably be the Kentucky Derby favorite. Also from Baffert’s barn, Roadster (5-2) continues his comeback from throat surgery late last year. He comes in having won an allowance race early last month at Santa Anita. Hollendorfer’s colt Instagrand (3-1) finished a disappointing third in the Gotham after having won his first two races in southern California by 10 lengths each. The New York performance plus the fact that this will be his first time going around two turns has me fading Instagrand. Instead, I will be boxing Roadster with Game Winner and John Sadler’s colt Nolo Contesto (6-1), a 2½-length runner-up to Roadster his last time out.

Some thoughts about Santa Anita

I finally felt like I had something to say about the crisis that has gripped Santa Anita, and I said it Friday on my podcast. It went something like this:

Last Sunday I was on the phone with my friend John Pricci from Horse Race Insider. He was watching the NCAA Tournament, and I was home watching the San Simeon Stakes at Santa Anita when that spill happened.

I gasped and yelled “oh, no, no, no, no.” And I said something I won’t repeat here, and John was clearly startled.

I kept rolling back the DVR to see if there was something I missed. Something that might somehow make this accident not as bad as the 22 others. But we would come to find out that Arms Runner had to be euthanized, and he became the 23rd racehorse to die from injuries suffered at Santa Anita since Christmas.

Now the folks who run Santa Anita have suspended racing on the downhill course from which Arms Runner crossed when he took his spill. And the California Horse Racing Board has scheduled a meeting for next Friday to talk about how and whether to move Santa Anita’s racing dates for the last 2½ months of the current meet somewhere else.

To be sure, this was inevitable. Jeremy Balan wrote it so eloquently and, unfortunately, with such prescience last weekend for Horse Racing Nation. No matter how safe we make our roads, there will be accidents, including fatal accidents. The same may be said about racetracks.

Yes, I know. The horses don’t have the final say like we do. I respect that argument, even if I do not respect the organization screaming the loudest about this – the organization that pays pickets to protest outside Santa Anita. Pickets who sometimes then go in with the money they earned and use it to bet on horses. But I am not here to discredit those demon seeds. That is like saying your mother wears combat boots. That does not win the argument.

Here is what does. For every racetrack death, there are more than 600 safe rides. That is a pretty good percentage.

Consider the alternative to those safe rides – the alternative of no rides at all. The calls to abolish racing in California have gotten louder. The point has been made that it takes only 600,000 signatures – or one in every 65 Californians – to put this to a vote of the entire state. A vote that I fear racing would lose.

Here is the flip side. If not for racing, the thoroughbred – that special breed of horse – would slowly become extinct. What reason would there be to breed them? And if you have a reason, are you paying for it?

As it is now, thousands of these beautiful animals get tender loving care that most of the public never sees. They sleep in hay. They awaken to oats. They get to have a run. They get walked around before they get a nice bath. Then they stroll around other horses. And they sleep. And eventually they have a lot of sex. That is not a bad life.

If my math is right, 99.8 percent of all racehorses enjoy such a life. And when their racing and breeding days are done, a growing number of farms take in these magnificent creatures to spend their final days.

Racing has its scoundrels and its problems. But it also has a lot of good people – hard-working people – and it is open to solutions.

True, track inspecting and drug restricting and whip banning will not make catastrophic breakdowns go away. But as I see every day that I am at a track and around the barns, those are steps being taken by people trying to do the right thing. Question their motives if you wish, but if the end means a safer sport that happens to be the livelihood for tens of thousands of people, then it is worth it.

I get it. It is not perfect. We just have to remind ourselves of that and try and keep one thing in mind: The rewards are worth the risk for humans – and for the horses that have been bred to race.

Ron Flatter’s weekly racing column is posted every Friday morning at VSiN.com and more frequently during coverage of big races. You may also hear the Ron Flatter Racing Pod, posted Friday mornings at VSiN.com/podcasts, On this week’s edition, Zoe Cadman of XBTV previews the Santa Anita Derby, the Blue Grass Stakes and the Wood Memorial. Trainer Todd Pletcher discusses his Kentucky Derby hopefuls, including the three that are racing Saturday at Keeneland and Aqueduct. The Racehorses by the Letters feature looks at the best ever starting with “V.” The Ron Flatter Racing Pod is also available at Apple, Google Play, Stitcher and other leading podcast platforms.

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