May 24, 2018: Act 2
It seems like the critics weren’t as wowed by the performance of our hero, Justify, in the second act of the ongoing Triple Crown play. Was it because the track was just as boggy as that at Churchill on Derby day? Perhaps. The fog added some drama didn’t it? Other than that, the similarity of the two races’ track conditions left us with many more questions than answers, just like a good second act of a play should do. How does it all get resolved by the end of the Belmont Stakes? Will we have a Triple Crown winner? Will the track conditions be a bog just like in the first two legs? What will happen if the track is dry? Can a mile and one-half distance race be won by a horse whose style of running is setting the pace? See what we mean by the questions?
Front-running speed carrying on the Pimlico surface is a reoccurring theme found with runnings of the Preakness. You only have to go back to American Pharoah in 2016, who led from gate-to-wire on a sloppy track. That performance may seem more impressive than Justify’s last Saturday, because of the way Pharoah took off just when it looked like the rest of the field was catching him. When comparing the two races from an Eye Handicapping standpoint, it’s easy to say that Pharoah’s performance was visually impressive. We could at least see the field, unlike this year with the fog.
One difference that could be seen was Pharoah being loose on the lead, whereas, Justify had Good Magic right along his side through the majority of the race. It’s also understandable that Good Magic’s trainer Chad Brown was upset with his horse pressing the pace. Being the great handicapper he is, Chad knew it was against the horse’s natural style of running off-the-pace rather than being the pace. Chad reacted as many of us do after going through the entries and figuring out their running styles to come up with how a race will unfold. When the players deviate from the script, bad things usually happen.
So, what was the effect of Good Magic pressing Justify for the majority of the race? Let’s check out the fractional and split times and compare them to American Pharoah’s Preakness times, since the track conditions were sloppy in both cases. Remember too, both horses were the pace setters in their respective Preakness’.
Justify: 23.11 47.19 1:11.42 1:36.10 Final: 1:55.93
American Pharoah: 22.90 46.49 1:11.42 1:37.74 Final: 1:58.46
Hmmm, Pharoah’s final time was much slower than Justify’s, so does that mean Pharoah’s race, while visually impressive wasn’t actually as impressively run as Justify’s? Let’s look at the split times (these are the times of the first horse to cross the poles at each quarter of a mile; however, note that the Preakness is a 16th of a mile less than the Derby, so, the last split reflects that distance.)
Justify: 24.08 24.23 24.68 19.83
American Pharoah: 23.59 24.93 26.32 20.72
Justify’s split times show those all-important 24-second quarter miles. That’s the standard jockeys try to have in their heads when racing long distance races. The fact Justify was a head in front of Good Magic until the ¾ mark and still kept those split times is probably the reason he was able to hold off the late runners. Pharoah was probably slowing down towards the end of the race to save something for the Belmont Stakes looming ahead.
Why go through all these numbers? Well, they serve to verify if what we saw was valid. Such comparisons will come in handy when handicapping the final act of our Triple Crown play, the Belmont Stakes. Being a pace setter, those split times indicate Justify might just get the mile and a half distance of the Belmont, but whether he can hold off the others who will be entered on a dry track adds considerable drama and makes our handicapping of the race that much more of a challenge. Thank goodness we have three weeks to get our handicapping tools ready.
May 17, 2018: The Play's the Thing
Just like the second act of a three-act play, the Preakness Stakes gives us the rising action, or in the case of horse racing, it raises the stakes. Will the outcome be a chance at a Triple Crown bid? That’s what needs to be resolved in this portion of our play and keeps us on the edge of our seats. With only one horse providing that outcome, why do we even bother handicapping the race? The answer is simply to figure out how much of a challenge it is going to be for Justify to repeat his Derby performance.
Like in most second acts, new characters will be introduced. Last year, one of these new characters, Cloud Computing won the race. The newcomers aren’t really new to racing, but to the Triple Crown. It is the role of their trainers to be the antagonists of the play. No matter how good we feel with our Head Handicapping and figuring out how a race will unfold, these trainers, the tops in their profession, are better, They are better because they have the first-hand knowledge of their horses and know the other horses by having run against them before. They know the other horses’ connections as well having competed against them for years.
So. what can we glean from their words and actions? Take Chad Brown’s decision to enter Derby second-place finisher Good Magic. Did he enter the horse because he saw those slow final fractions in the Derby and thought his horse could have caught Justify if the track wasn’t a swamp? What about Quip? Well, Quip just happens to be owned by the same connections as Justify. So, why would the owners jeopardize Justify with another horse they own. Ah, the plot thickens. These tidbits of information from owners, trainers, or even the jockeys can give us an insight into the strategies that will be employed, basically, how they think the race will unfold.
Of course, like in any play, the scenery tells a lot about the tale. Rain is in the forecast for Preakness day. Does this fact make us just give the race to Justify? No, a sloppy track is the great equalizer in horse racing. Just because Justify got a terrific start in the Derby doesn’t mean his luck will hold for the Preakness. We can’t handicap for luck, but we can try to come up with different scenarios of how the race will unfold. If the majority of your scenarios have the same horses finishing in the money, then figure out a wager to match them. This is how we tie our Gut, Head, and Tail Handicapping together.
Overall, ask whether the connections are they there because they have a legitimate shot, or are their connections just playing a minor role on a big stage? Clearly, the hero of our play on Saturday is Justify. He has done nothing wrong in his short career. He will be the heavy favorite, especially if it rains. So, you have to decide whether you can construct a wager that will be profitable using a heavy favorite, or just watch the race to see the drama unfold.
May 10, 2018: Hold Your Horses!
Well, did your handicapping tools get rusty in that record amount of rain that fell on Churchill Downs on Derby day? It’s ok to be shaking your head. For the second year in a row, race fans had to endure a sloppy running of the Kentucky Derby. So, why are all the racing pundits amazed at the performance of the winner Justify, when we saw the same race being run last year by Always Dreaming?
What they were wowed about were the fast early fractions set and how Justify keep the lead after pressing such an early pace. So, how do we compare the two years when the conditions looked the same for both? We could do the same comparison we did for all the major Derby preps by looking at the fractional, final, and split times. Just for giggles, let’s throw in a race run on a dry track. Instead of a past Kentucky Derby run on a dry track, let’s just go back a few weeks and look at the fastest run of the major Derby preps this year, the Florida Derby, won by Kentucky Derby third-place finisher, Audible.
2017 Kentucky Derby: 22.70 46.53 1:11.12 1:37.27 203.59
2018 Kentucky Derby: 22.24 45.77 1:11.01 1:37.35 204.20
2018 Florida Derby: 21.95 46.37 1:11.68 1:36.96 149.48*
Yes, the Florida Derby is run at a distance of a mile and one-eighth, an eighth of a mile shorter than the Kentucky Derby. So, let’s look at the split times of each, and divide the final split by 2 to get two eighths of a mile for each Kentucky Derby.
2017 Kentucky Derby: 23.83 24.57 26.15 26.32 / 2 = 13.16
2018 Kentucky Derby: 23.53 25.24 26.34 26.85 / 2 = 13.43
2018 Florida Derby: 24.42 25.31 25.28 12.52
“Alright, so what does it all mean?” you say scratching your sore head. Obviously, the Kentucky Derby each year doesn’t have the final quarter mile run in equal one-eighths. We just did that to show how slow that final quarter was when run on a sloppy Churchill Downs track compared to a race featuring many of the same horses that was run on a dry track at Gulfstream Park. The numbers also show how when a race is run under 24 seconds for those early fractions, the final fractions tend to be over 24 seconds, especially under the extremely sloppy conditions found at the Kentucky Derby in both 2017 and 2018.
Looking over the fractions, one number does stand out, that 45.77 logged in the 2018 Kentucky Derby, not quite a full second less than the other two races. Remember that the times are set by the first horse to pass that point in a race. In the case of the 2017 Kentucky Derby, Always Dreaming was recorded having a lead by a head at the ¾ pole, whereas, Justify had a length and a half lead at the mile pole. This difference means Always Dreaming maintained his lead for at least a half mile and Justify for at least a quarter of a mile.
“So, how does all this information help our handicapping?” you sigh. Well, if you do just Eye Handicapping and re-watch both the 2017 and 2018 Kentucky Derbies, you probably wouldn’t pick up the differences and similarities. You also may not get carried away with all the hype being put forth on Justify being the next American Pharoah. All of which means we will still need to handicap the next two legs of the Triple Crown, Races run on an off-track tend to be a great equalizer, as we found out with the longshots winning the other stakes on the 2017 and 2018 Kentucky Derby cards. There may be some Derby horses, who just didn’t like the slop and who can blame them? Have you ever tried to run in the mud? It is messy and tiring. So, how about putting a line through the Kentucky Derby when handicapping a future 3-year-old stakes. It might just make your handicapping a bit easier is all.
May 3, 2018: Unfolding "The" Derby
A BIG piece of our Derby handicapping puzzle is finally in place with the drawing of the post positions. We really can’t do our Head Handicapping without them and the past performances. Why these two pieces of information are vital to our Head Handicapping is that we need to figure out how the race will unfold. This process is Head Handicapping because it requires our imaginations to come up with the visualization of the race based on the information about each horse. Of course, those of us with over-active imaginations will probably come up with several race scenarios. It really isn’t about how many scenarios you can create, but about coming up with the same contending horses in the majority of the scenarios you’ve created.
So, the first thing we do is look over the past performances of each horse and glance through where they were at various points in their past races. Do see all ones or twos in a line? Or do you see them getting up to first or second or third place after being in a distant position in the early stages of the races? Some of the entries will look like they ran in place with all the same position being noted at each point in the race, like all fours, or worse, all 10s.
To us, the speed early or need-to-lead types (those with 1s early in their races) include horses like Flameaway, Justify, Promises Fulfilled. Here’s where the post positions come into our race unfolding. Horses on the far outside will either have to get to the front or near it before the first turn or be forced to take a spot in the back of the pack, a very large pack too. Watching last year’s race, who could forget the beating Classic Empire took coming out of the 14 spot. That gate position is the last one for the regular gate, as the auxiliary gate is placed right next to it.
Looking over old runnings of the race, it is usually the horses stalking the pace or running off-the-pace that come in the money (those with 3s, 4s, 5s, etc. early in their past races). These types would include horses like Audible, Good Magic Bolt d’Oro, Enticed, Brazvazo, and Hofburg. This group may seem like most of the field, and it usually is. So, how do we separate the contenders from the non-contenders? That’s where the post position and pedigrees come into the picture. The #1 gate is usually a problem because the horse is facing the rail with the entire field coming over to the rail at the start. This year that spot goes to Firenze Fire, who looks to be a closer from his past performances. Therefore, he may just let them all go to the rail while he runs content in the back.
Horses having no improving form are unlikely to display the closing kick necessary to come from off the pace, so, they can be tossed from our contenders lists right away. There are many horses that have Scat Daddy as their sire. He has sired many grass champions, so, there is a question about their running on dirt. Turf runners typically display a good kick at the end of their races though, which might help them in the Derby. If the early pace is brisk, then it might set up for these closers to catch some purse money; however, with that many horses charging down the stretch, it will be difficult to catch those off-the-pace horses already making their late moves.
If you really rely on your Gut Handicapping skills, then don’t forget to look at which horses have winning connections. Also, make those side wagers for your Heart Handicapping picks. Come race day, we need to check out the track conditions during the early races. We also need to do our Eye Handicapping of the Derby horses before the race. Who is looking fried already? Don’t be afraid to adjust your wagers based on anything you see or hear right before the race. That’s why your bankroll management will take on an added significance. Find races on the card that appeal to your handicapping. Save a little for any adjustments you might want to make before the Derby itself. Even a few bucks on the longshot that looks good to you may just be the play!
We go through all these exercises of handicapping because we need to separate the contenders from the non-contenders, unless you want to bet every horse in the field. You don’t have to pick a single winner, but keep it down to a manageable number to construct a wager. You might just want to wager on some long shots for show. Or box all your contenders in an exacta or triple wager. Try and match your picks to a wagering type or you may be kicking yourself if you had the right horses, but didn’t bet them in a way that would payoff.
Most importantly, however you handicap or bet, enjoy the day. Race fans don’t get cards like this every week, so, make the most of it.
April 26, 2018: Why the Rush?
What’s that you’re saying? Oh, you’ve made your Derby pick? So, there’s no need for you to look at any pedigrees? Boy, you really dislike those pedigrees, huh? What about the special Derby angles? Or watching the horses work out over the track?
See there’s no need to rush and make a pick. Enjoy handicapping the Derby using each handicapping tool at a time. What makes the Derby so special to handicap from any other race we handicap during the year are the things no other race offers to challenge handicappers. The main differences are having twenty three-year-olds running a distance they have never run before in a race. When will they ever run that far again with so much at stake? When will they ever run in a field that large again?
There’s nothing wrong with picking a Derby horse early just because you like him. Heart Handicapping is the most dynamic of our handicapping tools. If your pick wins, your heart is elated, and if it loses, deflated. Ah, yes, the highs and lows of being a race fan in one single pick. Remember, you can always make a side bet on that heart horse.
So, how do we tackle a 20-horse field? Hopefully, we already figured out their running styles, BUT we really need to wait until the post positions are drawn. If you need convincing of this fact, then all you have to do is watch last year’s Derby. Poor Classic Empire coming out of the 14 gate was crushed by horses coming from spots 15 on out. To make matters worse for the horse, he somehow recovered from the bad start to make a move coming down the stretch, when he gets sideswiped, thereby, losing all forward momentum. If you see a photo of the race’s finish, you’ll see the winner Always Dreaming still looking clean, even after running through the slop, as the rest of the field behind him was covered in mud making them indistinguishable from one another. Last year’s race also gives us a reason to be flexible with our picks because the weather conditions can change drastically from the first race on the card to the Derby.
When it comes to the distance of the race, we have to go back to our pedigree handicapping. Sure, there are many well-bred entries in this year’s race, but which of these bunch have established good form and which are still looking a bit green? At this point of the year, we always look to find the name Fappiano in a pedigree. With all the regal names in some of these pedigrees, why would we key on a horse that never won a Triple Crown race? Well, his descendants are still proving themselves winners in the Classic-distance races. Last year’s Derby winner, Always Dreaming is a descendant of Fappiano. Current horse of the year Gun Runner (a third-place Derby finisher) is a descendant of Fappiano. Unbridled? Real Quiet? Victory Gallop? Peppers Pride? Arrogate? American Pharoah? Poor Classic Empire? The list goes on and on.
There are other angles, what we call Gut Handicapping, to look at before the race. For example, what successful connections have runners in this year’s edition? In addition, the fact that no horse not racing as a two-year-old hasn’t won the Derby since the 19th century. So, go to the Kentucky Derby web site and check out some of these pieces of trivia. If that isn’t fun, then….
The last piece of handicapping we can do leading up to the Derby is watching those morning workouts. If you don’t have the time to, then listen to the reports given by the clockers on hand. They may gush about the horses having really fast times for their works, but we just want to find out which horses like the track surface at Churchill Downs and those not having good workouts. Also, by following the workouts, we can have the excitement about the BIG day build, just like a kid waiting for Christmas morning. It doesn’t get any more fun than that race fans. So, don’t rush, savor the moments leading up to America’s greatest race.
April 19, 2018: Never to Early
The Derby preps are finished giving us just a few weeks to handicap the main event. We need to start handicapping folks. “Isn’t that what we have been doing since the beginning of the year?” you ask in exasperation. We certainly have, but we now have to get all our handicapping tools in sync and throw in that all important bankroll management. Our objective is simple. Pick our Kentucky Derby contenders and find wagers to match. Simply said, but difficult to do, as you probably found out during our trek on the Derby trail.
We can’t complete our Head Handicapping, which is figuring out how the race will unfold until we find out the post positions next week. We can go through the prep race charts and/or watch those final preps again to see the running styles of those finishing in the money. Last week, we compared the final Derby preps by looking at the split times of each race, since they each were run at the same distance of a mile and an eighth. Now, we have to add the Arkansas Derby. This week, we are only going to look at the time of the final eighth of each race. Here’s how the finish would have ended if we were to have the winners in the same field:
1. Audible 12:52 Florida Derby
2. Justify 12:70 Santa Anita
3. Vino Rosso 12:81 Wood Memorial
4. Noble Indy 12:99 Louisiana Derby
5. Magnum Moon 11:99 Arkansas
6. Good Magic 13:31 Blue Grass
With these times at hand, go back and watch each race, especially concentrating on the last eighth. What do you notice? Who won on the lead? If they won on the lead, how fast was the race run? Who came off the pace? Who closed? Who crossed the wire looking like they could run around the track again? Was there any horses putting in a late charge, the kind that would benefit from an extra eighth of a mile found in the Kentucky Derby?
This watching of replays is a form of what we call Eye Handicapping. Other methods of Eye Handicapping will have to wait until right before the race. In the meantime, you can also go to the Kentucky Derby web site and watch replays of the race from prior years. What type of running style works best at the distance? You can then apply what you learned by watching the Derby replays to this year’s entries. While at that web site, go through the list of Derby qualifiers to get familiar with them. Who is in the best form? Who has winning connections (trainer, owner, jockey).
Another thing you can do this weekend is practice your bankroll management. With BIG cards on both the Friday before Derby day and Derby day itself, you don’t want to be short of funds. Try to avoid the habit of feeling you have to bet every single race on a card. Look over the races and find those that appeal to your handicapping strengths. Don’t have any? Then work on what you think are your handicapping weaknesses. Find a way to beat “the chalk” or find the bet type that includes the heavy favorite, but offers a nice payoff. You can always practice your bankroll management this weekend too.
There are many things we can do at this point to handicap, not only the Kentucky Derby, but the other great stakes found on the Churchill Downs cards on both Friday and Saturday. Find some fun ways to handicap as practice, so, when these two big days arrive, you’ll be able to relax and enjoy them.
April 12, 2018: Lucky for Us
Only one more Derby prep, and that’s this weekend at Oaklawn Park, with their meet’s feature race, the Arkansas Derby. Now, you may glance over this race because you saw a performance in the other major Derby preps that have been run, which had you picking that winner as your Derby choice. However, you need to think about how you arrived at that choice. Was the race visually impressive, so, you said to yourself: “That’s my Derby winner”? If you went by Eye Handicapping alone, you may have gotten only a cropped photo of the whole race.
So, how do you compare these final Derby preps when they are run at different tracks and on different days in some cases? Here’s where your Head Handicapping works with the Eye Handicapping you’ve already done. As there are the noted differences between the races, we have similarities. Each race is run at a mile and one-eighth. Therefore, we can look at things like the fractional times, final times, and split times of each race. What we want to see in any distance race are split times (time taken at each quarter pole of the race) being around 24 seconds. Any lower than 24 seconds, and the race was run too fast by the leading horses at that point in the race.
Here are the split times for each of the major Derby preps run so far:
Louisiana Derby: 23:64 24.86 25.82 12.99
Blue Grass: 23.85 24.47 24.98 13.31
Wood Memorial: 23.72 24.76 25.54 12.81
Florida Derby: 24.42 25.31 25.28 12.52
Santa Anita Derby: 23.89 24.76 24.41 12.70
That last split time in each race is for one-eighth of a mile, so, double it to estimate what the final quarter would have been had the races been run at a mile and a quarter, the distance of the Kentucky Derby. That is why we always say look at how the horses are running after they cross the finish line. Do they look like they can get that extra eighth of a mile?
What is interesting to note with these times that you won’t notice by just watching the races again is how slowly the quarter splits were run in the Louisiana Derby, Wood Memorial, and Florida Derby. They were all over the target of 24 seconds. Now, one second over may not seem much, but in horse running time, it is.
Now, look at the final eighth time in each. Too bad we don’t have technology handy, where we can overlay the stretch runs of each of these races by the clock. If we did, that final eighth in the Florida Derby would have Audible in front of all the rest of the winners. Also note, that Audible wasn’t really challenged in the last eighth, whereas, the others were in some cases. Meaning, those being challenged down the stretch were giving it their all and that all wasn’t as fast as Audible’s finish.
These numbers aren’t the only reason to justify your Derby pick right now. We still need to look over their pedigrees because the trainers are pointing their charges to peak on Derby day. We also need to do our Gut Handicapping for the angles only found for the Kentucky Derby. Lastly, we need to have those post positions to do our Head Handicapping for the race. Overall, there’s a lot more to do in the next three weeks before picking our Kentucky Derby contenders. Lucky for us, we have the handicapping tools to do it!
April 5, 2018: Plenty of Practice
There is no surer sign of spring to a race fan than the opening of Keeneland’s spring meet. Don’t blink, because you may miss it. It goes by very quickly and it is chock full of great graded stakes races on an annual basis. With so many stakes on tap, it may be difficult to pick the meet’s highlight. This year, it has to be the Blue Grass Stakes, another major Derby prep.
There are three Derby preps being run this weekend. Along with the Blue Grass, we have the Wood Memorial at Aqueduct and the Santa Anita Derby at Santa Anita, of course. These last two preps feature heavy favorites with Enticed and Bolt d’Oro respectively. To the contrary, the Blue Grass gives us a big field of 14 entries. Many of the names are familiar to us followers of the Derby trail.
Good Magic, winner of the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile last fall is coming off a third place finish to Promises Fulfilled in the Fountain of Youth. It was his first start since his BC victory and the speed favoring Gulfstream Park track took Promises Fulfilled wire-to-wire. In the Blue Grass, he’ll get another furlong on a deeper track. He’ll also get plenty of competitors. Quip returns after his win in the Tampa Bay Derby, but still isn’t getting much respect on the ML odds. Tiz Mischief, Free Drop Billy, Flameaway and Sporting Chance are running in yet another Derby prep. Could they finally find the finish line first?
There are some very nice pedigrees in here, breeding that says they can go a distance. So, do a little pedigree handicapping along with the mandatory Head Handicapping. Unfortunately, with the meet just starting and ending very quickly, Gut Handicapping isn’t going to be very helpful. Although, you may want to go watch some prior runnings of the race on their dirt course.
With the amount of graded stakes at Santa Anita, Aqueduct, and Keeneland Saturday, you might want to practice that bankroll management as well. Go through each card, so, you don’t just feel you have to bet every race on each card. Find races that appeal to your handicapping skills.
Remember, you don’t have to pick a single winner, but the contenders, then structure your bet or bets on the contenders picked. It sounds complicated. You just have to know all your bet types. If you can’t find back-to-back races to your liking to use in a multi-race bet, then concentrate on a particular race that does appeal to you and make bets for just that race, like WPS, exactas, triples, and superfectas.
There are so many betting options that we often find ourselves using the same bet type. When that happens, you may be kicking yourself that you didn’t make an exacta bet when picking two contenders in a race. Experiment with the many graded stakes being given us this weekend. By time the BIG days of racing for the Triple Crown come along, you’ll be very confident of how to match your handicapping with your betting strategy.