The horses will be more battle-tested. More experienced. And they will grow that much bigger than they were in the spring. So handicapping a Labor Day weekend version of the Kentucky Derby is a whole new experience.
But one angle remains exactly the same now as it was before the pandemic: Which of these 3-year-olds — or 3½-year-olds — will be competitive extending to 1¼ miles?
In that context, Tiz The Law might have sent a bold signal with Saturday’s victory in the Belmont Stakes. The Derby futures market provided a ringing endorsement, shortening him to 5-2 at William Hill and 11-4 at Circa.
Not only did he run away from an outclassed field, he looked like he could go another 220 yards, the difference between the 9 furlongs last weekend on Long Island and the 10 furlongs Sept. 5 at Churchill Downs.
According to Trakus, Tiz The Law ran the last eighth of a mile in 12.1 seconds and the last three-eighths in 36.4. Those were the fastest finishing times in any Derby prep of at least 9 furlongs this season and well within the historical sweet spot for more than a generation’s worth of Derby winners.
As researched by longtime turf writer and publicist Jennie Rees, almost every horse to wear the roses since 1990 met the criteria of her Final Fractions Theory. In their final 1⅛-mile prep races before going to Churchill Downs, 27 of the last 30 Derby winners had finishing times of no more than 13.0 seconds for the last furlong and/or 38.0 for the last three.
If the clock and that pattern are all knowing, this year’s abridged version of the Belmont provided the Derby trail with no fewer than four horses that meet those standards: Tiz The Law, Dr Post, Max Player and Pneumatic.
Rees’ statistics are based on an idea that trainer Phil Thomas suggested to her years ago in Kentucky — if a horse has a strong finish over 9 furlongs, he should have the energy left to go one more in the Derby.
But none of those previous preps was limited to one turn. This year’s Belmont was. Between that and what might have been a souped-up track, the numbers coming off Long Island last weekend could send the wrong message.
Beyer Speed Figures were invented to smooth those inequities, and they also reveal a trend. Of the last 28 Derby winners, 25 came into the race with a career-best Beyer of at least 95. Only two horses came out of last weekend’s Belmont with such high figures, Tiz The Law at 100 and Dr Post at 95. In fact, each had a previous race with a least as high a number, Tiz The Law with 100 in the Holy Bull and Dr Post with 96 in his maiden win.
Mix that with the list from the Final Fractions Theory, and only five would-be Derby horses now meet all the criteria. They comprise:
— 12.1 36.4 100 Tiz The Law
— 12.3 36.7 96 Dr Post
— 12.9 37.6 102 Honor A. P.
— 12.6 37.8 95 Ny Traffic
— (13.8) 38.0 97 Ete Indien
All the final fractions will be rendered moot, though, in the next 1½ months. That is because all these horses are likely to have at least one more prep. Most will be 1⅛ miles. But the Travers at 1¼ miles will not, and that is precisely where Tiz The Law is headed Aug. 8. A formula, then, will not be needed to see if he can go 10 furlongs, since he will actually race 10 furlongs.
Thankfully, the end of the Derby trail is coming into focus. There are 10 weeks until it ends. Normally that means mid-February, somewhere around Risen Star time.
So this weekend’s $500,000 Grade 3 Ohio Derby is unlikely to be the final prep for any horse bound for Louisville. But at least it is 1⅛ miles. If nothing else, that gives horseplayers something to build on.
Derby futures: Who’s hot?
Dr Post (18-1 Circa, 16-1 William Hill). He was never going to catch Tiz The Law in the Belmont or in the futures market. But with his strong second-place finish, this Quality Road colt established himself as the best chance trainer Todd Pletcher has to get his third Derby victory. He made up four places between the turn and the finish with a turn of foot that has become his trademark. With two wins and a second in three starts this year, Dr Post is expected to show up July 18 at the Haskell Invitational on the Jersey shore.
Art Collector (55-1, 35-1). This makes two weeks in a row that this Bernardini colt is on the “hot” list. As long as 130-1 this month, bettors are clearly reassessing the resume of this Bernardini colt who got a 100 Beyer in his 8½-furlong allowance win nearly two weeks ago at Churchill Downs. Riding a three-race winning streak, his next stop is Saturday’s Ohio Derby, where he will be matched against Breeders’ Cup Juvenile winner Storm The Court. That means his current odds will make a big move based on what happens at Thistledown.
Cafe Pharoah (45-1, 35-1). By winning Sunday’s Grade 3 Unicorn Stakes at Tokyo Racecourse, this pace-stalking, 3-for-3 colt by American Pharoah out of a More Than Ready mare clinched the one invitation Japan gets to the Derby. In the last week Circa cut his odds from 100-1. His 1:34.9 over a good dirt mile looks more impressive when considering that he broke from Post 16, and the clock starts in Japan when the gates open and not after a run-up. He made his debut last year at 1⅛ miles, covering the last 3 furlongs in 37.3 seconds, and he could race that distance again next month in the Japan Dirt Derby. Then owner Koichi Nishikawa would have to decide if he wants to go through the coronavirus complications of shipping a horse internationally to Kentucky.
Derby futures: Who’s not?
Sole Volante (35-1, 35-1). This list is made up of disappointments in the Belmont. Even before Sole Volante finished a distant sixth, bettors were fading him, going from 5-1 to 11-1 at post time. In the Derby futures he was as short as 8-1 last week at William Hill. Trainer Patrick Biancone blamed Saturday’s disappointment on his deep closer not adapting to a speed-favoring track. Bettors should remember that the come-from-way-behind style is seldom redeemed for a garland of roses. Since 2002 the only Derby winners worse than fifth at the quarter pole were 50-1 long shots Giacomo in 2005 and Mine That Bird in 2009. Before entertaining thoughts of the Derby, the colt sired by Uncle Mo could go back to the turf, where he was 2-for-2 to start his career last year.
Modernist (100-1, 75-1). Critics said his victory in the weaker division of the Risen Star and his third-place finish from a wide draw in the Louisiana Derby were overachievements. They appeared to be correct after a seventh-place Belmont finish left him a career-worst 20½ lengths behind. Afterward trainer Bill Mott did not have a next race in mind for the Uncle Mo colt. Just last week Mott was torn between entering him in the Belmont and this week’s Ohio Derby. At least racing him in the Belmont let bettors know that Modernist might be out of his league against top-level 3-year-olds. Better to know now than later.
Farmington Road (140-1, 125-1). A wide trip to an eighth-place finish left this Pletcher-trained Quality Road colt 0-for-3 in graded stakes with an average 11-length margin of defeat. Pletcher said he wants a track that is more closer-friendly for this maiden winner. Although he did not specify a particular race, maybe next month’s Blue Grass Stakes would be Farmington Road’s last chance to make it to the show in Louisville.