by Jon White
March 28, 2019
The first strikes for the May 4 Kentucky Derby can now be revealed.
Back in 1999, I developed my Derby Strikes System. The system consists of nine key factors. When a horse does not qualify in one of the nine categories, the horse gets a strike. The nine key factors (or categories) are explained at the end of this column.
Various “rules” for the Kentucky Derby once were quite popular. A “Derby rule” meant a horse needed to have done this or that, or not done this or that, in order to win the race. However, through the years, as many of the “Derby rules” were broken, their popularity seemed to wane.
As I previously have written, I think what quite possibly makes my Derby Strikes System better than any single “Derby rule” is the strikes system is more comprehensive. The Derby Strikes System is an amalgamation of factors that attempts to ascertain the chances a horse has to win the Kentucky Derby from both tactical and historical perspectives. It is the marriage of the TACTICAL with the HISTORICAL that I think distinguishes the strikes system from any “Derby rule,” per se.
Many years after I came up with my Derby Strikes System in 1999, racing enthusiast Ryan Stillman suggested that I research how many strikes each Kentucky Derby winner had prior to 1999. I realized that Stillman had a good idea, though I could not go back any further than 1973 because stakes races in the United States were first graded in 1973. Two of my nine key factors deal with graded stakes races.
According to the Derby Strikes System, a horse with zero strikes or only one strike has a much better chance to win the Kentucky Derby than a horse with two strikes. Going back to 1973, 38 of the last 46 Kentucky Derby winners have had zero strikes or just one strike.
Six of the last 46 Kentucky Derby have had two strikes: Cannonade (1974), Ferdinand (1986), Sea Hero (1993), Funny Cide (2003), Giacomo (2005) and Always Dreaming (2017).
According to the Derby Strikes System, it is a tall task for a horse with more than two strikes to win the Kentucky Derby. Of the last 46 horses to win the Run for the Roses, only two horses have won with more than two strikes, Mine That Bird and Justify.
Mine That Bird pulled off a 50-1 shocker when he won the 2009 Kentucky Derby. Justify proved a punctual 5-2 favorite in the 2018 edition.
While there was a huge disparity in the odds for Mine That Bird and Justify, they did have something in common. The track was sloppy when they won the roses. Was the sloppy track a contributing factor when Mine That Bird and Justify succeeded despite having more than two strikes? Maybe, or maybe not. Who really knows?
I do know that even though the Derby Strikes System is important to me when trying to determine a horse’s chances to win the Kentucky Derby, Justify’s three strikes did not keep me from picking him to win last year’s renewal.
Prior to the 2018 Kentucky Derby, I wrote: “Justify had stardom written all over him from the moment he took his first step out of the gate in his career debut. He has yet to taste defeat. And Justify is my pick to win this year’s Kentucky Derby. I am picking Justify even though he didn’t race at 2, even though he has just three career starts and even though he has three strikes in my Derby Strikes System.
“I must confess that I feel like something of a traitor by selecting Justify. I am going against my own Derby Strikes System by picking a horse to win who has three strikes. I guess you could say that when it comes to Justify, I am drinking the Kool-Aid. I just can’t help but be swayed by what he has done at Santa Anita this year in the afternoon and the morning, fueling my belief that Justify’s sheer talent might be sufficient to trump his lack of a race at 2, his lack of overall experience and, yes, his three strikes.”
Justify not only won the Kentucky Derby, he subsequently took the Preakness Stakes and Belmont Stakes to become this country’s 13th Triple Crown winner. After the Belmont, Justify was retired to stud with six victories from six lifetime starts.
WINNER’S STRIKES GOING BACK TO 1973
Here are the strikes for each Kentucky Derby winner going back to 1973:
1973 Secretariat (0 strikes)
1974 Cannonade (2 strikes) Categories 3 and 4
1975 Foolish Pleasure (0 strikes)
1976 Bold Forbes (0 strikes)
1977 Seattle Slew (0 strikes)
1978 Affirmed (0 strikes)
1979 Spectacular Bid (0 strikes)
1980 Pleasant Colony (0 strikes)
1981 Genuine Risk (1 strike) Category 1
1982 Gato Del Sol (1 strike) Category 3
1983 Sunny’s Halo (1 strike) Category 1
1984 Swale (0 strikes)
1985 Spend a Buck (0 strikes)
1986 Ferdinand (2 strikes) Categories 2 and 4
1987 Alysheba (1 strike) Category 2
1988 Winning Colors (0 strikes)
1989 Sunday Silence (0 strikes)
1990 Unbridled (1 strike) Category 3
1991 Strike the Gold (0 strikes)
1992 Lil E. Tee (0 strikes)
1993 Sea Hero (2 strikes) Categories 3 and 5
1994 Go for Gin (0 strikes)
1995 Thunder Gulch (0 strikes)
1996 Grindstone (0 strikes)
1997 Silver Charm (1 strike) Category 4
1998 Real Quiet (0 strikes)
1999 Charismatic (1 strike) Category 5
2000 Fusaichi Pegasus (1 strike) Category 6
2001 Monarchos (0 strikes)
2002 War Emblem (0 strikes)
2003 Funny Cide (2 strikes) Categories 2 and 9
2004 Smarty Jones (0 strikes)
2005 Giacomo (2 strikes) Categories 2 and 5
2006 Barbaro (1 strike) Category 6
2007 Street Sense (0 strikes)
2008 Big Brown (1 strike) Category 6
2009 Mine That Bird (4 strikes) Categories 1, 4, 5 and 9
2010 Super Saver (1 strike) Category 4
2011 Animal Kingdom (1 strike) Category 6
2012 I’ll Have Another (1 strike) Category 6
2013 Orb (0 strikes)
2014 California Chrome (0 strikes)
2015 American Pharoah (1 strike) Category 6
2016 Nyquist (0 strikes)
2017 Always Dreaming (2 strikes) Categories 1 and 6
2018 Justify (3 strikes) Categories 1, 6 and 8
Justify managed to break the so-called Apollo jinx. Every Kentucky Derby winner since Apollo in 1882 had raced at 2 until Justify last year. A horse needs to have raced as a 2-year-old to avoid getting a strike in Category 8. Justify became the first horse to win the Kentucky Derby despite a strike in Category 8.
BY MY STANDARDS UPSETS LOUISIANA DERBY
By My Standards, coming off a maiden victory, won the Grade II Louisiana Derby by three-quarters of a length in a 22-1 upset at that venerable New Orleans venue last Saturday while making his fifth career start.
Trained by Bret Calhoun, By My Standards completed 1 1/8 miles in a hand-timed 1:49.53. The Kentucky-bred Goldencents colt was credited with a career-best 97 Beyer Speed Figure. Spinoff finished second at 4-1. Sueno ended up third at 7-1 in the field of 11, five lengths behind Spinoff.
War of Will, the 4-5 favorite, broke alertly before he abruptly lost his footing behind in the first few strides. He wound up ninth after having won all three of his previous starts on dirt for trainer Mark Casse.
In the track’s Louisiana Derby recap, Casse said: “We think what happened was about four jumps out of the gate. He actually broke in front and if you watch, he buckles on his right hind. And we believe maybe it was a stumble of some sort. But when he did, we think he strained maybe a muscle. But he was significantly off after the race…I’ve just been on the phone with Dr. Robert McMartin. He thinks [War of Will] might have caught his stifle or something. We feel like he’ll probably be a little better tomorrow.”
Casse was right in thinking War of Will probably would be better Sunday. In the track’s stable notes for Sunday, Casse said: “It’s amazing how much better he was today. I just feel fortunate that he’s okay, first and foremost. We’re fairly certain that he probably caught his patella a little bit. So what we’ll do is we’ll do some exercising and probably laser treatment to strengthen the patella muscle. But we feel optimistic that we can still make the [Kentucky] Derby. I’ve been dealing with patella ligaments since the beginning of my career, but I’ve never seen one catch like that did.”
On Steve Byk’s radio program At the Races, Casse said Tuesday morning he was “very optimistic” regarding War of Will’s situation. Casse said the colt would be shipped to Kentucky and checked out thoroughly there. If all does check out well, the colt could go back to the track to train at Keeneland on Friday, Casse added.
A horse’s number of strikes can’t be determined until the horse’s next race will be the Kentucky Derby. Louisiana Derby participants By My Standards, Spinoff and War of Will are not scheduled to start again before the May 4 classic, which means their strikes now can be tallied.
By My Standards has only one strike. And as is the case with so many horses these days, he gets a strike in Category 6, the “sufficient racing experience category.” I have noted in recent years that I consider this to be by far the least important category because horses just do not race as much nowadays as they did when I introduced Derby Strikes System in 1999.
SIGNIFICANT CHANGE IN CATEGORY 6
From 1973 through 2000, Fusaichi Pegasus was the only horse to get a strike in Category 6. He had made five starts going into the Kentucky Derby.
But from 2001 through 2018, seven horses -- Barbaro, Big Brown, Animal Kingdom, I’ll Have Another, American Pharoah, Always Dreaming and Justify -- got a strike in Category 6 for making fewer than six starts before the Kentucky Derby.
Put another way, only 3.5% of the Kentucky Derby winners in the 28 years from 1973 through 2000 had a strike in Category 6. But 36.8% of the winners in the last 18 years from 2001 through 2018 had a strike in that category.
Ever since Animal Kingdom in 2011, I decided that a Category 6 strike in itself will not stop me from picking a horse to win the Kentucky Derby. I picked I’ll Have Another in 2012, American Pharoah in 2015 and Justify in 2018 even though they each got a strike in Category 6.
And while Justify’s three strikes did worry me to some extent, the fact that one of his strikes came in Category 6 made it much easier for me to go ahead and pick him.
As for the only other horse in the last 46 years to win the Kentucky Derby with more than two strikes, Mine That Bird was fine in the not-so-important-anymore Category 6. All four of his strikes came in what I consider to be more meaningful categories.
Spinoff, like Justify, has three strikes. One of his strikes is in Category 6. He also gets a strike in Category 2 for not having won a graded stakes race. And he gets a third strike in Category 4 because he was in front with a furlong to go in the Louisiana Derby before finishing second.
If War of Will is able to get over his physical setback and does run in the Kentucky Derby, at least he will be in good shape concerning his number of strikes. War of Will has just one strike. With eight lifetime starts, he is okay in Category 6, unlike By My Standards and Spinoff. War of Will’s only strike comes in Category 5 for not having finished at least third in a 1 1/8-mile race or longer.
Todd Pletcher trains Spinoff. Pletcher also conditions Cutting Humor, victorious by a neck at 2-1 in last Sunday’s Grade III Sunland Derby at Sunland Park Racetrack & Casino. Anothertwistafate ran second in a fine try at 7-2. Mucho Gusto, who set a fast pace as the 9-10 favorite, finished third in the field of nine, nearly six lengths behind Anothertwistafate. Mucho Gusto was responsible for fractions of :22.76, :45.63 and 1:09.63. It is likely that Mucho Gusto especially paid the price for that scorching half-mile in :45.63.
Cutting Humor’s final time in the 1 1/8-mile Sunland Derby was a sparkling 1:46.94 to break the track record of 1:47.21 established by Oh So Regal when he won the 2018 Sunland Park Handicap at the age of 4. It does seem that this year’s Sunland Derby was contested on a lightning-fast strip. Earlier on the card, the Southern California-based mare Escape Clause also broke a track record when she stepped one mile in 1:34.00 to win the Harry Henson Handicap by a little more than seven lengths.
Before Mine That Bird captured the Kentucky Derby, he finished fourth in Kelly Leak’s 2009 Sunland Derby, which was run in 1:50.02. Mine That Bird recorded an 80 Beyer Speed Figure in the Sunland Derby before posting a 105 in the Kentucky Derby.
More recently, Firing Line won the 2015 Sunland Derby by 14 1/4 lengths in 1:47.39 when he produced a 103 Beyer Speed Figure. Firing Line then ran second in the Kentucky Derby, a length behind American Pharoah, who would go on to sweep the Triple Crown. Firing Line’s Kentucky Derby figure was 104.
Cutting Humor recorded a career-best 95 Beyer Speed Figure for his Sunland Derby triumph.
In terms of strikes, Cutting Humor has zero.
If Anothertwistafate and/or Mucho Gusto start next in the Kentucky Derby, they will do so with two strikes apiece.
Blaine Wright trains Anothertwistafate, who currently has 30 points for the Kentucky Derby. Because 30 points might not be sufficient to get into the Kentucky Derby field, there is a chance that Anothertwistafate will race again before May 4 in order to try and earn more points.
If Anothertwistafate does run in the Kentucky Derby without another start before May 4, one of his two strikes would come in Category 2 for not having won a graded stakes race. He also would get a strike in -- you guessed it -- Category 6 for having made only five career starts. But if Anothertwistafate does race again before May 4, it would give him six career starts, eliminating his strike in Category 6.
Mucho Gusto now seems iffy for the Kentucky Derby. If he were to make his next start there, one of his two strikes would come in Category 4 for being second with a furlong left to run in the Sunland Derby before he finished third. And he would get another strike in Category 6 because he’s made just five career starts.
MY CURRENT KENTUCKY DERBY TOP 10
1. Omaha Beach
2. Game Winner
4. Code of Honor
5. Long Range Toddy
7. Cutting Humor
8. Bourbon War
10. By My Standards
Anothertwistafate, Cutting Humor and By My Standards are newcomers on my Top 10 this week.
Even though Casse said he feels optimistic War of Will can still make the Kentucky Derby, I elected to drop the colt from my Top 10 this week and will monitor his situation going forward. He was No. 4 last week.
Mucho Gusto and Instagrand also exit my Top 10 this week. Mucho Gusto was No. 7 last week before his loss in the Sunland Derby. Hall of Fame trainer Jerry Hollendorfer told Daily Racing Form’s Jay Privman that the “plan as of the moment” for Instagrand is to run him in the Grade I Santa Anita Derby on April 6. A good performance there probably would propel Instagrand back onto my Top 10. The Kentucky-bred Into Mischief colt ran third in Aqueduct’s Grade III Gotham Stakes on March 9 while making his first start since a 10 1/4-length victory in Del Mar’s Grade II Best Pal Stakes last Aug. 11.
No. 4 Code of Honor and No. 8 Bourbon War are among 11 entered in Gulfstream Park’s Grade I Xpressbet.com Florida Derby this Saturday. The 1 1/8-mile race offers 170 qualifying points (100-40-20-10) for the Kentucky Derby.
Hidden Scroll has been installed as the Florida Derby morning-line favorite at 5-2. Code of Honor is 3-1. Bourbon War is 7-2.
After a scintillating 14-length debut victory Jan. 26 at Gulfstream, Hidden Scroll was backed down to 6-5 favoritism in the Fountain of Youth. He weakened a bit late after he set a scorching pace. All in all, considering how fast he ran early and it was just his second career start, he certainly didn’t disgrace himself. He gets a rider switch from Joel Rosario to Javier Castellano for the Florida Derby.
WINX EXTENDS HER LONG WINNING STREAK
Australia’s Winx won last Saturday’s Group I George Ryder Stakes at Rosehill in what is scheduled to be the penultimate start of the mare’s fantastic career. It extended her extraordinary winning streak to 32.
This year’s George Ryder was Winx’s 24th Group/Grade I victory, a world record. The 22 such wins by the Irish hurdler Hurricane Fly in Europe from 2008-15 had stood as the world record until Winx came along. America’s legendary gelding John Henry ranks third in terms of all-time Group/Grade I wins with 16.
Winx is scheduled to race for the final time in the Group I Queen Elizabeth Stakes at Randwick on April 13.
THIS WEEK’S NTRA POLLS
Here is the Top 10 for this week’s NTRA Top Thoroughbred Poll:
Rank Points Horse (First-Place Votes)
1. 326 Monomoy Girl (13)
2. 314 Roy H (1)
3. 292 Bricks and Mortar (2)
4. 271 City of Light (26)
5. 218 McKinzie (1)
6. 185 Midnight Bisou
7. 148 Seeking the Soul
8. 115 Sistercharlie
9. 95 Accelerate
10 68 Marley’s Freedom
Here is the Top 10 for this week’s NTRA Top 3-Year-Old Poll:
Rank Points Horse (First-Place Votes)
1. 339 Game Winner (24)
2. 316 Improbable (7)
3. 309 Code of Honor (8)
4. 308 Omaha Beach (2)
5. 182 Long Range Toddy
6. 137 Tacitus
6. 111 Bourban War
8. 93 War of Will
9. 80 Cutting Humor
10. 71 By My Standards
DERBY STRIKES SYSTEM’S CATEGORIES
These are the nine key factors (or categories) in my Derby Strikes System:
1. THE GRADED STAKES FACTOR. (The horse ran in a graded stakes race before March 31.) This points out horses who have competed against tough competition prior to March 31 rather than at the last minute in April, enabling the horse to be properly battle-tested. (Exceptions: Since the introduction of graded stakes races in the U.S. in 1973, only Genuine Risk in 1980, Sunny’s Halo in 1983, Mine That Bird in 2009, Always Dreaming in 2017 and Justify in 2018 have won the Kentucky Derby without running in a graded stakes race at 2 or early at 3 before March 31.)
2. THE WIN IN A GRADED STAKES FACTOR. (The horse has won a graded stakes race.) This points out horses who have shown they have the class to win a graded stakes race. (Exceptions: Ferdinand in 1986, Alysheba in 1987, Funny Cide in 2003 and Giacomo in 2005 are the only exceptions since the introduction of U.S. graded stakes races in 1973; Alysheba in 1987 did finish first in the Blue Grass, only to be disqualified and placed third.)
3. THE EIGHTH POLE FACTOR. (In either of his or her last two starts before the Kentucky Derby, the horse was either first or second with a furlong to go.) This points out horses who were running strongly at the eighth pole, usually in races at 1 1/16 or 1 1/8 miles. By running strongly at the same point in the Kentucky Derby, a horse would be in a prime position to win the roses. Keep in mind that 53 of the last 56 Kentucky Derby winners have been first or second with a furlong to run. Since Decidedly won the Derby in 1962 when he was third with a furlong to go, the only three Kentucky Derby winners who were not first or second with a furlong to run were Animal Kingdom, third with a furlong remaining in 2011 when only a half-length from being second; Giacomo, sixth with a furlong to go in 2005; and Grindstone, fourth with a furlong to run in 1996. (Exceptions: Since 1955, the Kentucky Derby winners who weren’t either first or second at the eighth pole in his or her last two starts have been Tim Tam in 1958, Carry Back in 1961, Cannonade in 1974, Gato Del Sol in 1982, Unbridled in 1990 and Sea Hero in 1993, with Canonero II in 1971 unknown.)
4. THE GAMENESS FACTOR. (The horse’s finish position in both of his or her last two races before the Kentucky Derby was no worse than his or her running position at the eighth pole.) This points out horses who don’t like to get passed in the final furlong. (Exceptions: Since 1955, the exceptions have been Venetian Way in 1960, Cannonade in 1974, Foolish Pleasure in 1975, Ferdinand in 1986, Silver Charm in 1997, Mine That Bird in 2009 and Super Saver in 2010, with Canonero II in 1971 unknown.)
5. THE DISTANCE FOUNDATION FACTOR. (The horse has finished at least third in a 1 1/8-mile race or longer before the Kentucky Derby.) This points out horses who have the proper foundation and/or stamina for the Kentucky Derby distance. (Exceptions: Since 1955, the only exceptions have been Kauai King in 1966, Sea Hero in 1993, Charismatic in 1999, Giacomo in 2005 and Mine That Bird in 2009.)
6. THE SUFFICIENT RACING EXPERIENCE FACTOR. (The horse has had at least six lifetime starts before the Kentucky Derby.) This points out horses who have the needed experience. (Exceptions: Since 1955, the exceptions have been Grindstone in 1996, Fusaichi Pegasus in 2000, Barbaro in 2006, Big Brown in 2008, Animal Kingdom in 2011, I’ll Have Another in 2012, American Pharoah in 2015, Always Dreaming in 2017 and Justify in 2018. Grindstone, Fusaichi Pegasus, Barbaro, I’ll Have Another, American Pharoah and Always Dreaming each had made five starts before the Kentucky Derby. Animal Kingdom had made four starts before the Kentucky Derby. Big Brown and Justify had made three starts before the Kentucky Derby.)
7. THE NO ADDING OR REMOVING BLINKERS FACTOR. (The horse has not added blinkers or had blinkers removed in his or her final start at 3 before the Kentucky Derby.) This seems to point out that, if a horse is good enough to win the Kentucky Derby, the trainer is not searching for answers so late in the game. (Since Daily Racing Form began including blinkers in its past performances in 1987, no horse has added blinkers or had blinkers removed in his or her last start at 3 before winning the Kentucky Derby.)
8. THE RACED AS A 2-YEAR-OLD FACTOR. (The horse made at least one start as a 2-year-old.) (Exceptions: Apollo in 1882 and Justify in 2018 are the only Kentucky Derby winners who didn’t race as a 2-year-old. Through 2018, the score is 142-2 in terms of Kentucky Derby winners who raced at 2. Since 1937, horses unraced as a 2-year-old are a combined 1 for 63 in the Kentucky Derby. During this period, the only horses to win, place or show were Hampden, who finished third in 1946; Coaltown, second in 1948; Agitate, third in 1974; Reinvested, third in 1982; Strodes Creek, second in 1994; Curlin, third in 2007; Bodemeister, second in 2012; Battle of Midway, third in 2017; and Justify, first in 2018.)
9. THE NOT A GELDING FACTOR. (The horse is not a gelding.) (Exceptions: Funny Cide in 2003 and Mine That Bird in 2009 are the only geldings to win the Kentucky Derby since Clyde Van Dusen in 1929.)