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    By Bill Doolittle
    Photo by Aaron Kingsbury

    It used to be hard to pick the Derby winner. It was a real challenge to select just the right horse from 20 elite three-year-old Thoroughbreds, all running the longest distance (a mile and a quarter) any of them has ever tried. It should be hard. The Kentucky Derby should be the greatest handicapping challenge in horseracing.

    And it used to be. But not anymore. Now, picking the winner of the Kentucky Derby is almost as easy as falling off a log.

    The betting favorite — the horse with the most money bet on it, the horse most people are telling you will win the Derby — that’s the winner. Has been for five straight years, the only such stretch in Derby history. Orb in 2013, California Chrome in 2014, American Pharoah in ’15, Nyquist in ’16 and Always Dreaming last year. Like clockwork. (The favorite won four years in a row in the 1890s — when the field averaged five horses — and in the 1970s.)

    Now, everybody — the butcher, the baker, the candlestick maker — knows the favorite is going to win the Derby. Fifty-five favorites have won the race since the first in 1875. That’s about 38 percent of the time. Since 2000, the favorite has won 50 percent of the time. (See chart on next spread.) Not only is this bad for the wide-open mystique of the Run for the Roses, but it means there is no longer any need for an “expert.” Namely: me. If the Derby is going to be that predictable, I’m out of the only job I’ve ever held.

    Yipes!

    But Daily Racing Form writer Marty McGee says not to worry. “I really do think this year, or next, we’re going to resume the pattern of Derby chaos, which I think adds to the intrigue of the race,” he says. The Derby, heading to its 144th renewal on May 5, has seen this sort of thing before, with a steady stream of betting favorites marching into the winner’s circle. The 1970s produced six Kentucky Derby favorites that won, among them Triple Crown winners Secretariat, Seattle Slew and Affirmed (the second betting choice to Alydar in the Derby). Other winning ’70s faves: Riva Ridge, Cannonade, Foolish Pleasure and Spectacular Bid. Slew paid just $3 to win, and Bid came in at $3.20. Brrrrr.

    “But after that,” McGee says, “we went zero-for-20 for favorites. Not one favorite won between 1980 and 1999.”

    The 2000s were a mixed bag, with favorites such as Fusaichi Pegasus, Smarty Jones, Street Sense and Big Brown, balanced by whopper payoffs from Giacomo and Mine That Bird, which both paid a little over $100 on a $2 win bet. Contrarian bettors crave those kinds of mixed results. Chaos on the tote board.

    “I would love to see an 18-1 shot win it this year,” McGee says. “Just to restore what you and I know about the Derby — that it is delightfully unpredictable.”

    Amen.

     

    Just saying we’re due a break from the favorite funk doesn’t mean it will happen anytime soon. One reason might be the points system that determines starters for the Kentucky Derby.

    Churchill Downs handicapper Joe Kristufek thinks it is not just a coincidence that the five-race streak of favorites began after the advent of the points system. Before 2012, the most earnings accumulated in “graded” stakes races determined the Derby field. Most money won. Now, horses accumulate points in a series of “Derby prep” races, with the most points up for grabs in famous preps such as the Florida Derby, Blue Grass Stakes, Santa Anita Derby, etc. Those are the longest races, and the last in the series, which kind of eliminates the speed birds that might have been better as two-year-olds, when the races are shorter. “You don’t get these sprinters that have no chance going a mile-and-a-quarter, setting ridiculous paces up front, causing the shape of the race to become more outrageous than it should be,” Kristufek says. “When you look back at the Derby Giacomo won (in 2005), that was a very fast pace. Mine That Bird (in 2009) — obviously that was a messy track and a crazy race. But (in the past), there were often fast paces up front set by horses that would never make it into the race in 2018 because they won’t be eligible.”

    It’s not always about time. The pace might be moderate, but the horses up front might be just as likely to run out of gas. And the top riders know it.

    Which brings to mind the 2011 Kentucky Derby, when savvy rider Johnny Velazquez allowed Animal Kingdom to settle into 12th early — then just steered the horse in, out and around exhausted steeds. Animal Kingdom’s toughest task was not tripping over horses looking for the water bucket.

     

    Jill Byrne, the popular racing analyst who is now a Breeders’ Cup executive, thinks the points system is identifying horses that are peaking at the right time. “The better horses are coming into the Derby the right way,” Byrne says. “Always Dreaming wins the Florida Derby and puts up a big number, trains well. It’s like all the bells and whistles sort of line up to point to him.”

    Even though many prognosticators tabbed Classic Empire as the favorite last year, the most money came in on Always Dreaming when the betting windows opened at the Downs. Bettors had seen Always Dreaming’s strong Florida Derby, noted his speed and liked Velazquez in the saddle, with leading trainer Todd Pletcher calling the shots. Bettors chose Always Dreaming — and he won.

    Byrne thinks the amount of information readily available to horseplayers is a big factor. “It’s a smarter betting public that’s got so much information from easily accessible tech sources,” Byrne says. “It’s literally in the palm of your hand. Even if you’re not a major horse-racing fan, you’ve got apps and everything giving you information on who the top horses are.”

    Kristufek agrees that the information age has narrowed the betting edge previously held by sharp handicappers. “When I first started watching races in college,” he says, “if you watched races every day and took good trip notes, and had a handle on the statistics — your own statistics — you had a decided advantage.

    “The playing field has been equaled.”

    He mentions speed figures and stat analyses with names like the Ragozin and the Thoro-Graph. “It’s almost like baseball now with the analytics,” Kristufek says. But he’s not bowing to sheets and numbers. “Someone like me, I like to have a creative opinion,” he says. “I make my own assessments of horses.”

     

    All that sounds right — the information, the points system. But it is really all about the horse. The same type of horse that keeps winning the Derby. The horse that sits just behind the speed and bounces to the lead at the top of the stretch, leaving the closers unable to catch him. The Derby winner is beginning to look suspiciously like a clone.

    Byrne says the horse I’m describing is the perfect Derby horse. “When a horse is made the favorite at Derby time, it’s usually because they’ve earned the role — by their ability and running style,” she explains. “They have tactical speed, natural speed and can maintain their speed. That puts them in a good spot when you’re talking about a 20-horse field.”

    She’s right. Some of this author’s greatest handicapping successes have flashed that running style: I’ll Have Another, Barbaro, Sunday Silence (none of whom were the favorite). Of course, I also tabbed Pleasant Colony and Ferdinand (neither the favorite), who both came from last to win. But near the lead is best. It’s by far the winning style over 143 Kentucky Derbies.

    Kristufek notes that several of the recent favorites went off at odds that could still make bettors some money. Some were followed home by longshot second-place finishers that cooked up big exactas (picking first and second, in order). “If you’re playing it the right way, the exactas are paying just tremendous,” Kristufek says. “That’s why the Kentucky Derby is not only the most famous race of the year, but the best betting race of the year.” Yes, the exactas on Orb ($981.60), California Chrome ($340) and Always Dreaming ($336.20) were, indeed, juicy. But American Pharoah’s exotic-bet payouts were thin, and you saw what happened when Nyquist, the favorite, won — with the second, third and fourth choices following him home like a choo-choo train. The $1 exacta paid $15. In a 20-horse race! Chicken feed.

    Of course, it didn’t matter to me. I couldn’t take a speed-bred horse like Nyquist to win the Derby if we were betting on the replay. A bettor needs the occasional 15-1 shot. Baby needs new shoes. Or pumps. You hit a real nice tri and drive home a new car. It’s not so good for the image of the Derby to run all these unbeatable favorites. And it’s bad for me if the candlestick maker is as likely to pick the Derby winner as I am.

    McGee is a reassuring voice. “Fate has smiled on the favorites for whatever reason, but at some point it will end,” he says. “I think it is inevitable we’ll get back to a cycle of surprising results.”

    Just for the record, McGee jumped into prominence while writing for the Kernel, at the University of Kentucky, when he picked — in print — 1982 winner Gato Del Sol, which rolled home at $44.40 on a $2 win bet. So he isn’t sweating a few years when a 13-year-old kid with an iPhone correctly selects the favorite.

    “I’ve been to the Derby 44 years and won something like seven or eight,” McGee says. “All it takes is a couple Gato Del Sols to make up for those other years.”

    But, man, can we hurry it along?

    “This year,” he says. “Or next….”

    Since the first Derby in 1875, the favorite has won 55 times, or about 38 percent of the time. The largest payout in Derby history was in 1913, when Donerail paid $184.90. Click here to view our graph analyzing Derby winners over the last 50 years.

    This originally appeared in the April 2018 issue of Louisville Magazine. To subscribe to Louisville Magazineclick here. To find us on newsstands, click here.

    Cover photo: 2017 Kentucky Derby winner Always Dreaming // Aaron Kingsbury

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