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Johnny D.’s Early Kentucky Derby Analysis

by Johnny D

April 18, 2019

With a prospective field of 20 starters in place it’s time for horseplayers to begin formulating serious opinions about potential Kentucky Derby 2019 wagers. Win, Place, Show, Exacta, Trifecta, Superfecta and Super Hi-5 are in play vertically with Pick Fours, Fives and Sixes available for horizontal action.

If you can’t understand why so much attention is paid to handicapping the Kentucky Derby, stop reading right now. You won’t find this enlightening or entertaining. In fact, reading it actually may cost you money because you’ll be wasting time that otherwise could be spent analyzing the ???th race at Wherever Downs. After all, a mutuel payoff earned anywhere spends as well as one garnered beneath the twin spires. Right? Well, sort of. I won’t attempt to change your mind. You’re excused.

For those of you still with me, thanks. The Kentucky Derby is a 20-horse field matching the world’s best 3-year-old dirt horses at one mile and one-quarter for $2 million on the first Saturday in May. Off the bat that’s an intriguing premise. That wagers on and including the Kentucky Derby attracted nearly $145 million last year suggests ‘there’s gold in them thar hills.’ Since I’m a prospector from way back who’s found a rich vein or two, I don’t mind the climb. Below is my suggested early Kentucky Derby prospecting process.

First, I like to ascertain which horses are fastest according to speed figures. Personally, Thoro-Graph and Daily Racing Form’s Beyer Speed Figures do the job, although there are other creditable ratings available. Final wagering decisions aren’t based solely on speed figure rankings, but they’re a good place to start. After all, as we know, ‘The race is not always to the swift, nor the battle to the strong; but that’s the way to bet!’

Omaha Beach and Maximum Security are fastest. Thoro-Graph has the former solidly faster than the latter, with Improbable owning the second-fastest last-race fig. BSF have Maximum Security with two races rated over 100 and ‘Beach next with just one at that level. No one else in the field has cracked the 100 Beyer mark. Improbable came close when earning a 99 BSF in the Arkansas Derby and Win Win Win registered similar in January going 7 furlongs at Tampa. However, that’s his only BSF above 90 in 6 career starts. While not quite that fast, Game Winner is steady and has earned above 90 BSF in 5 of 6 lifetime starts. Others in the field have posted BSF in the 90s and contribute to a real logjam for minor positions beneath top-ranked runners.

At this point, it makes sense to analyze Derby pace. There are a variety of packaged pace projections available, but I like to use past performances (print and video) to estimate who might be where and when. Overall, this Kentucky Derby appears to lack early speed. That said, the pace in the Kentucky Derby always is solid. Don’t expect any horse to be left alone up front for very long. Of the top contenders I expect Maximum Security to be on or close to the lead. In the Florida Derby, he comfortably strolled along in front throughout, but he has speed if it’s needed. Omaha Beach breaks well and can be placed in the vanguard without becoming rank. This year’s field seems to have an abundance of horses that would prefer to sit just off the pace. That could make things crowded into the first turn as riders attempt to secure prime stalking positions. Getting through that gauntlet unscathed is critical. ‘Security and ‘Beach have the best chances of accomplishing that. It doesn’t seem that this year’s closers are fast enough or that they’ll get the kind of pace needed to win. Of course, like last year, a long-odds closer could hit the super. Post positions will affect what happens early, and the draw is Tuesday.

Ability to handle one mile and one-quarter effectively is a consideration although sometimes overemphasized. No one really knows if a horse can handle a distance of ground until they try it. Breeding provides clues but good horses overachieve. And most horses in the Derby are good horses. That said, I have a few thoughts about a contender or two regarding distance: I doubt the Derby distance is Improbable’s most effective and I anticipate that Game Winner’s grinding style will work well. As far as the two fastest are concerned, Omaha Beach seems capable at the distance. We have no idea if Maximum Security can carry his best throughout or not.

Part of what makes solving the Kentucky Derby puzzle fun is that 3-year-olds can improve overnight. Therefore, it’s advisable to attempt to anticipate which runners might step up their games on the first Saturday in May. These may be win contenders or price horses for superfecta consideration. Among major contenders, Omaha Beach and Roadster have improved BSF in each of their career races with the latter probably offering the biggest chance of another improvement. Since Omaha Beach posted a 101 BSF last out it’s difficult to expect additional improvement. He may not need it. A repeat performance could get the Louisville job done. According to Thoro-Graph figs Bob Baffert-trained runners--Game Winner, Roadster and Improbable—seem capable of improvement. Maybe that’s why Baffert is the master at having one ready for this race. Tax has an interesting Thoro-Graph pattern that suggests in-the-money improvement at a big price. 

Finally, it’s time to break some eggs! You can’t play ‘em all. Separating Derby runners may seem overwhelming. That’s why horseplayers must make decisions. Cross ‘em off. Chuck ‘em out. For example, I’m not using Plus Que Parfait, who won the UAE Derby in Dubai. To me, it’s too much to ask a colt to fly around the world and win the Kentucky Derby in his next start. I’ll also exclude Master Fencer from Japan. Another big ask by the connections. Horses that appear too slow based on Thoro-Graph and/or BSF eventually also will be excluded.

Additional thought and preparation are needed to, hopefully, unlock the door to the Kentucky Derby superfecta. Past performance videos and future workouts need to be considered. Hopefully, I’ve offered a solid step-by-step early approach to handicapping the Kentucky Derby. The usual Kentucky Derby horse-by-horse analysis will appear in this space Thursday, May 2. ‘Till then…

Race On!