LOUISVILLE, Ky.--If horseplayers all got together on a Facebook page before Saturday’s Kentucky Derby, their relationship status would say “It’s complicated.”
Between a suspect class of 3-year-olds, a prep season full of slow finishes and some untimely injuries, it has been one of those years. Now throw in an uncertain day of weather and a track that will undergo an unknown metamorphosis, and ... well ... it’s complicated.
With showers forecast to return and then go away sometime Saturday afternoon, the big question is how dry will the track be for the Derby when it starts at 6:53 p.m. EDT?
“There’s so much guesswork,” said Chad Brown, the trainer of the long shot Practical Joke. “Depending on how much the track deteriorates that could affect how much the riders want a forwardly placed position. I usually come up with a Plan A and a Plan B, and if those don’t work Plan C is always in the jockey’s hands.”
Two runnings of the Derby on sloppy tracks come to mind. Will the race be a repeat of 1994, when Chris McCarron took Go For Gin to an early lead without looking back? Or will it be like 2009, when Calvin Borel held 50-to-1 Mine That Bird in last place before picking off tiring horses in a rail run to an unlikely victory?
Don’t look for pace to provide that lesson. In both those old cases they went out in 22 4/5 and 47 1/5 over the first quarter- and half-mile. Instead it comes down to how the preferred running styles will mesh with the conditions.
Laying back worked Friday for Mike Smith, who took Abel Tasman from last to first to win the Kentucky Oaks after a hot pace was established by dueling front-runners. Could Fast And Accurate or State Of Honor or Irish War Cry or maybe even early betting favorite Always Dreaming set the same sort of table with the pace today?
“The way Always Dreaming has trained all week he’s been very eager,” said Mark Casse, trainer of Arkansas Derby winner Classic Empire. “I would be surprised if he’s not very eager again on Derby day. If he wants to go, State Of Honor will sit off of him.”
If Always Dreaming is the linchpin to the early pace, then do the track conditions allow him to have the stamina to hold on? And if not, who comes from behind after getting mud in his eyes (or in Patch’s case, eye) to win the race?
Brisnet attaches a letter and a number to each horse based on its past performances. An “E” means early speed, “E/P” an early/presser that will sit just off the pace, “P” a presser that will work from mid-pack and “S” for sustained means a closer. The number attached to the letters indicates how much early speed the horse tends to show; the higher the number the more forward the horse is placed early.
Here is how Brisnet broke down the Derby field, shown in order of style and ranking early speed:
6. State Of Honor – E 7.
17. Irish War Cry – E/P 8.
2. Thunder Snow (not available from overseas; probably about E/P 7).
3. Fast And Accurate – E/P 7.
5. Always Dreaming – E/P 7.
9. Irap – E/P 6.
11. Battle Of Midway – E/P 6.
14. Classic Empire – E/P 6.
18. Gormley – E/P 5.
19. Practical Joke – P 3.
20. Patch – P 3.
4. Untrapped – P 2.
13. J Boys Echo – P 2.
16. Tapwrit – P 2.
12. Sonneteer – S 2.
7. Girvin – P 1.
15. McCraken – S 3.
8. Hence – S 1.
10. Gunnevera – S 1.
1. Lookin At Lee – S 0.
The higher the horse is on this list the more comfortable it is being on the lead. But that also means he could be the most prone to burning out early. The lower he is on the list the more apt he is to having late energy, but he could also be too far back to matter.
Before Friday’s Kentucky Oaks the favorite Paradise Woods would have been second on a similar list with an “E/P 8.” She set the early pace, tired badly and finished 11th. The eventual winner Abel Tasman had an “S 2,” putting her near the bottom of the list to indicate a tendency to sit back. She did just that, and her conserved energy was successfully uncorked in the stretch by jockey Mike Smith.
Derby history suggests that Go For Gin’s front-running win in the slop 23 years ago is the outlier, even if fast tracks are included. Since 1989 only he and 2002 winner War Emblem led at every call from the first turn to the finish. It also shows that Mine That Bird was the only worst-to-first winner in the last 29 runnings of the Derby.
So what style really works when it is wet? In the past 46 years the Derby has been run only seven times on an off track, all since 1989. Of those seven times the only two winners on or near the lead for most of the race were Go For Gin, briefly only a head behind, and in 2004 Smarty Jones, never more than 2½ lengths back. The other five gave up ground early in the race and waited to pounce. How far behind were they?
1989 Sunday Silence – 4th, 6½ lengths at the ¾ pole.
1990 Unbridled – 12th, 14 lengths at the ¾ pole.
2009 Mine That Bird – 19th, 21 lengths at the mile pole.
2010 Super Saver – 6th, 8 lengths at the ¾ pole.
2013 Orb – 16th, 18¾ lengths at the ¾ pole.
But on all hose wet tracks, including Go For Gin and Smarty Jones, the eventual winner was either in the lead or within a head of it turning into the stretch. If there was ground to make up, it was done on the backstretch and in the final turn.
The lesson here is that trends may lean one way or another, but there are many ways to win on a wet track. Another lesson? Do not be too influenced by Friday’s Kentucky Oaks. After all the Derby has six more horses to create nearly 50 percent more traffic, and the race is an eighth of a mile longer. To hear Casse tell it, that eighth of a mile is not necessarily added at the end of the race but at the beginning.
“For the first time they’re going to see almost a three-eighths of a mile straightway coming out of the gate,” Casse said. “They haven’t seen that before. There’s going to be some horses that when they see that daylight they are going to want to go, especially when you have 170,000 people screaming when they say ‘they’re off.’”
Even with his Ivy League education Brown suggested the ultimate fallback position on all the variables Saturday may be no position at all.
“One of my favorite sports quotes I live by,” Brown said, “came from Mike Tyson, of all people. ‘Everyone has a plan until they get punched in the mouth.’”
A breakdown of the Derby field
Here are my thoughts on all 20 horses, complete with their odds to win at the close of betting at Churchill Downs on Friday night, and whether I will consider him for a win ticket, an exotic ticket or toss him:
1. Lookin At Lee (25/1). Being a closer mitigates being stuck on the rail, but he has never won a race longer than seven furlongs. Toss.
2. Thunder Snow (17/1). He had the perfect trip to win a muddy UAE Derby, which has never been a proving ground for this race. Toss.
3. Fast And Accurate (33/1). He has won all three times since adding Lasix but raced only once on dirt. He may show the way – and fade late. Toss.
4. Untrapped (59/1). His only win was in a maiden race at Churchill. There is a distance question, but blinkers come off, and he has wet-track experience. Exotics.
5. Always Dreaming (9/2). The Florida Derby win came with a strong finish, and his best Beyer Speed Figure of 97 makes him a contender. Win.
6. State Of Honor (47/1). Front-runner had a big close last time out and might improve with distance, but he is winless since last October. Win.
7. Girvin (21/1). He has never raced outside the Fair Grounds, and he has been dealing with a qua rter crack. But he had a good work last week. Exotics.
8. Hence (17/1). The wise-guy horse has looked good in the morning, and he closed strong to win the Sunland Derby with a 97 Beyer. Win.
9. Irap (36/1). Blinkers-off led me to take him at 31-to-1 when he won the Blue Grass, but he set a slow pace there. That won’t happen here. Toss.
10. Gunnevera (9/1). He checked all the boxes for closing speed finishing third in the Florida Derby, but he has not looked good in workouts here. Exotics.
11. Battle Of Midway (39/1). Never a stakes winner, he finished second in a slowly run Santa Anita Derby. He has had four jockeys in four races. Toss.
12. Sonneteer (36/1). He is a maiden that was only fourth in the Arkansas Derby, but he ran the last furlong in 11.6 seconds and the last three in 36.2. Exotics.
13. J Boys Echo (43/1). Compromised by a bad start last time out in the Blue Grass, but he also finished slowly. He has a 102 Beyer in his past. Exotics.
14. Classic Empire (7/1). Bounced back from injuries to win the Arkansas Derby. The best 2-year-old last year should have higher regard. Win.
15. McCraken (6/1). Should get better with distance, but he flattened in his last race after eight weeks off to deal with an ankle issue. Exotics.
16. Tapwrit (29/1). Overlooked Tampa Bay Derby winner has never started outside post position 7, but he won a stakes in the slop. Exotics.
17. Irish War Cry (5/1). Getting better with distance with two 100 Beyers and a wet win in the Holy Bull, but he came home slowly to win the Wood. Exotics.
18. Gormley (24/1). His win in the Sham on a muddy track adds context here with an off track a possibility. There is a distance question. Win if wet, exotics if not.
19. Practical Joke (32/1). If not for poor starts in 4 of 6 races he might have won more than just the Champagne last fall. Best Beyer only 92. Exotics.
20. Patch (13/1). He has only a maiden win and has had three jockeys in his last three races. Poor draw does not help a horse with no left eye. Toss.
My Derby picks:
1. Classic Empire.
3. State Of Honor (Gormley if track is not fast).