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Which Kentucky Derby Contenders Rank Most-Tested?

by Jeremy Plonk

April 16, 2018

It’s the Monday after the final preps are run and you still have three weeks until the Kentucky Derby field takes shape at the entry box. Chances are, if you’re a die-hard like me, you already have a sense of what you think of this 2018 crop. Your appreciation should be deep; it’s a darned-good one, even if some of the leading players like Justify and Magnum Moon are historically light on experience.

That led me to wonder just who has faced the toughest competition to date? Often you’ll hear token statements like: We can’t judge this crop until much later in the season to know how good it is. Well, la di da. What good does that do anyone in 3 weeks?

And since we dissect all the angles between now and the first Saturday in May, because, that’s what we do, I'll try to shed light on the experience of this crop. I decided this weekend to dig through the past performances and plot out every stakes start for every one of the Top-20 prospects as of April 15. The idea is to see who has faced the most quality competition. How do we measure quality? Well, the Derby points chase does that for us already. Those who are here have earned their way here. Score in the Top-20 in points and consider yourself a quality member of this crop.

For the purpose of this exercise, every stakes start is worth at least 1 point (counting yourself as the horse who competed). For each additional eventual Derby starter you have faced in a race, you add another point. It’s not going to give us any great revelation to the most talented or fastest horse, just simply who may be the most battle-tested. If you believe in strength of schedule and durability, maybe this can shed some light on horses you may not have considered. Of course, a tough-but-sidelined past rival does you no good here -- like McKinzie -- so there are some holes in the process. But we're not looking for bulletproof theories in handicapping, because there are none. It's about getting the best feel you can and doing the most with it when it comes time to wager.

That said, the most tested 3-year-old in this year’s Derby by points is Free Drop Billy, who scores a 21. He’s made 7 stakes starts in 8 races overall and has top-4 finishes in 6 of them. And interestingly, every one of his stakes attempts also featured at least 1 other eventual Kentucky Derby entrant (based on the current Top-20 points list). The horse he edged as most-tested is Firenze Fire, who has made 8 stakes starts in 9 outings and scored 20 points. Races like the Withers and Jerome were ones where he was the only eventual Top-20 performer and didn’t do him as much good in terms of this study.

The remainder of the leading 5 most-tested runners are Enticed (16), Flameaway (15) and Bravazo (15). Enticed racked up his 16 points in 5 stakes appearances, which means he averaged more than 2 other eventual Top-20 contenders in each of those stakes. There were no free lunches on his schedule. Flameaway made 8 stakes bids to notch his 15 points, which means there were less than 1 other eventual Top-20 performer on average in each of his attempts. Compare that with Bravazo, whose 15 points came in just 5 attempts, which means he averaged 2 other Top-20 rivals in each stakes bid.

The horses who had the toughest cumulative stakes schedules were Enticed, Good Magic and Quip, the only horses to average more than 2 eventual Top-20 rivals per stakes attempt and each has made 3 or more stakes bids so far.

Here’s a complete run-down of the research:

21-Free Drop Billy (7 stakes, 2.0 other current Top-20 opponents per stakes)
20-Firenze Fire (8 stakes, 1.5)
16-Enticed (5 stakes, 2.2)
15-Bravazo (5 stakes, 2.0)
15-Flameaway (8 stakes, 0.9)
14-Lone Sailor (5 stakes, 1.8)
13-Good Magic (4 stakes, 2.3)
13-Solomini (5 stakes, 1.6)
12-My Boy Jack (7 stakes, 0.7)
11-Bolt d’Oro (5 stakes, 1.2)
10-Quip (3 stakes, 2.3)
9-Promises Fulfilled (3 stakes, 2.0)
8-Vino Rosso (3 stakes, 1.7)
7-Mendelssohn (5 stakes, 0.4)
6-Audible (2 stakes, 2.0)
6-Noble Indy (2 stakes, 2.0)
5-Magnum Moon (2 stakes, 1.5)
3-Hofburg (1 stakes, 2.0)
2-Justify (1 stakes, 1.0)
1-Gronkowski (1 stakes, 0.0)