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Written by: Tom Amello and The Wizard

The 150th Kentucky Derby will be run May 4, 2024, at Churchill Downs. Every year this race draws the interest and attention of millions of casual racing fans.  Why? Because only the winner has a chance to earn the coveted Triple Crown. The race asks three-year-old colts and geldings to travel a 10-furlong distance of ground while racing in and among the largest field each will ever face. But beyond these two aforementioned factors, the Kentucky Derby is just another Thoroughbred race. And every edition of the Kentucky Derby should be handicapped in the same way one would handicap every or any other Thoroughbred race. Let’s examine this 150th Kentucky Derby and focus on handicapping this race in the same way as any other race from the perspective of Field Size, Pace and Race Dynamics, Speed, Gears and Wagering.

The Field for the 150th Kentucky Derby

Every field of Thoroughbreds, regardless of size, is made up of obvious win contenders, less likely but possible winners, and hopeless throw outs. After the morning line oddsmaker does his job of predicting how the public will wager the race, “live” betting odds are the opinions which separate the field. The betting public, “The Crowd”, has proven itself over time to be both efficient and formidable. For most everyday fields, especially those shortened by late scratches, nearly 90% of winners are among the betting public’s three top choices. In the once-a-year Kentucky Derby field of 20 rivals, the winner usually emerges from among the first 7 public choices. After the obvious 2 or 3 favorites, the upset horse usually lives among the next 4-5 public choices. Do long odds horses which appear hopeless win? Occasionally, but unless one can find a reason, long odds horses never win their fair share.

This 150th Derby field offers two likely favorites in Florida Derby winner Fierceness and Blue Grass winner Sierra Leone. Undefeated Japanese invader and winner of the UAE Derby, Forever Young, is a contender. Louisiana Derby winner Catching Freedom, like rival Forever Young, is a winner beyond 9-furlongs and a contender. Brad Cox trainee Just a Touch, short on experience with only three starts, could contend following a strong effort in the Blue Grass while holding second to winner Sierra Leone. Hall of Famer Bill Mott’s Resilience, winner of the G2 Wood Memorial has trained forwardly over the Churchill Downs main track, but The Wood has not produced a Derby winner since 2000. Honor Marie has pedigree and late finishing kick, put in a stellar work on April 25, the 10-furlongs should not be a problem, and an upset or placing at long odds would not be a great surprise. Domestic Product, the “other” entrant from Chad Brown and winner of the Tampa Bay Derby, would be a “shake your head” surprise at today’s 10-furlong distance while never racing beyond one mile and 1/16th. But few are better getting an “A” race from a last out winner returning from a layoff than Chad Brown. 

Potential long odds runners, “hopeless” types, include Japan’s other entrant, T O Password, Grand Mo the First, Catalytic, Track Phantom, West Saratoga, as well as turf and synthetic maven Endlessly. 

Pace and Race Dynamics

The context of today’s field is made up of runners emerging from previous contexts. Every race reveals “who” a horse is by “how” he/she performs. Said another way, horses have running styles, more importantly, winning running styles. Running styles are defined as EARLY, EARLY PRESSER, PRESSER, and SUSTAINED CLOSER. When fully developed as elders, most horses are “prisoners” of their running style and tendencies; young developing three-year-olds are finding theirs.

The runners in this field have, to a certain degree, shown their preferred running style. However, in every race, but especially a 20-horse field, four factors exert a major influence on performance: post position, gate ability, the running style of rivals standing in the gate to either side, and the crush from outside runners towards the inside to gain position in the run to the clubhouse turn.  Far too often, the best laid plans of trainers and jockeys are dashed shortly after the start of a Kentucky Derby.

Early speedsters, Pressers, and front third of the field stalkers include Fierceness, Track Phantom, Dornoch, West Saratoga, Just a Touch, Resilience, Grand Mo the First, and Stronghold. T O Password has raced on or near the lead; Forever Young should be forwardly placed as well. Domestic Product is the “other“ runner from trainer Chad Brown. This colt has tactical speed to be among the front half.  

Rear-half runners include Just Steel, Mystic Dan, Endlessly, Catching Freedom, and Society Man. Sierra Leone and Honor Marie are deep closers. Track Phantom, before adding blinkers, was the sharpest gate horse; he still might be. Fierceness, Stronghold, Resilience, Dornoch, and Just a Touch usually break well. Only Domestic Product and Catalytic have earned “bad start” comments from chart callers. Rear runners and deep closers are always at a disadvantage. They must possess either a class edge or race behind a strong, contested pace  to deliver a best effort. 

Speed

Only Thoroughbred racing could poach a biblical quote (Ecclesiastes 9:11) and turn it to a maxim for wagering on horses. Sportswriter Hugh Keough is credited with penning “The race is not always to the swift, nor the battle to the strong; but that is the way to bet.”  Speed figures are enigmatic.   Fast is fast but HOW a horse was able to run fast is equally important. Was the speed number earned easily or under pressure? Does the number reflect the quality of the field? Will fast horses repeat the last and be equally fast today? Will the fastest horses be victimized in some way preventing them from repeating that best last figure? Will one or more slower horses on paper, improve enough to run faster than ever? The “consistent inconsistency” of individual Thoroughbred performance is reflected in speed figures. Legendary racing author Mark Cramer suggests “projecting change” rather than expecting horses to repeat recent efforts and speed figures, especially in the context of “live” odds. Thoroughbred horses are not machines.

For example, one might posit that a near repeat of Fierceness’ top speed figure earned in the Florida Derby is strong enough to make him the most likely winner at short odds. That figure was earned while “loose-on-the-lead”. But any one of the factors mentioned above could impede a repeat of his last. A similar case could be made for Sierra Leone. And a near repeat of their earlier race might not be good enough should other rivals show both marked improvement and/or enjoy a better trip around the oval.

The fast horses earning fast speed figures in this 150th running of the Kentucky Derby, in speed figure order, are Fierceness, Sierra Leone, Catching Freedom, Just a Touch, Honor Marie, Just Steel. Forever Young does not arrive with traditional speed figure ratings but has been visually impressive. Others must run career top figures. 

Gears

The most likely winner of any race is the horse with tactical speed to sit just off or near the early pace. These horses establish position, have dead aim on pace setters, and gears to shift from cruising speed, deliver a short burst of speed, and reel in the leaders. In a 20-horse field going 10-furlongs, gears, and the ability to quicken are huge assets. There will be traffic and bumping. Fierceness has shown a high cruising gear when able to grab the lead. Sierra Leone is a steady rear half grinder capable of reeling in tiring leaders. Catching Freedom has demonstrated the gears to gain ground in the final eighth of every race. Undefeated Forever Young has won from the rear, racing in midpack, and racing close to the leaders. Just a Touch chased the strongest pace of any prep, a “rabbit” stable mate setting the table for winner Sierra Leone. Domestic Product quickened nicely to overcome both a glacial pace and traffic to claim the Tampa Bay Derby. These few have gears to use in either the early or late stages in a race. 

Wagering

 Thoroughbred racing as a gamble is a game of opinion. It is a parimutuel game where tracks take a commission for staging the races, and players play against each other. Always wager on your opinion. If you have no opinion, you can follow The Crowd’s opinion as expressed in “live” odds. Sure, you can bet names, colors, and numbers. There is enough chaos and randomness in a Kentucky Derby with a 20-horse field of three-year-olds asked to try 10-furlongs for your name, color or number to win. Recreational handicappers know enough about past performances and other nuances of the game to develop their own “informed” opinion on which horses they choose to bet and which pools to wager into.

Handicapper James Quinn suggests the Kentucky Derby is fraught with enough unknowns that   bettors should not take less than 6-1 or 7-1 on a win bet. We agree. Next, the favorites are the horses most likely to defeat your 7-1 shot. After making your win bet, make exactas with favorites over your horses, should your horses race well enough to win but finish second.

If you prefer likely favorites Fierceness or Sierra Leone at shorter odds, either one should be used on top in exotic wagers. Construct exactas, trifectas, or superfectas using these short odds horses to win over contenders at longer odds.

On to the Preakness and Everyday Racing

Late in the evening on May 4th, the winner of the 150th Kentucky Derby will rest in his stall while connections, turf writers and fans contemplate which also rans and new shooters will be pointed to The Preakness Stakes, second leg of the Triple Crown Series. The context of that race will be different from this Derby. Your approach to the race, however, should be the same as described above. The principles and practices are the same. Luck at the races.

2 Comments

  • Gerard Puhy
    Posted April 26, 2024 at 7:09 am

    What is the cost for The Wizards Derby Day selections?

  • William joseph Oakes
    Posted April 27, 2024 at 11:45 am

    always have enjoyed your views on horse racing. Hoping on day the owners will agree to have a commissioner for racing to enhance the betters and keep the sport in tack for us joe publice and the trainers.

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Last updated: February, 2024

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