Kentucky Derby Winner has Speed, Stamina and No Strikes
Plenty goes into handicapping a 20-horse Kentucky Derby, starting with figuring out who can’t win. We separate the Derby wheat from the why-are-you-here? chaff—along with some value picks for your tickets.
We’ll get this out of the way right now, because we know most of you won’t be able to resist throwing a few dollars down on those Kentucky Derby horses carrying rich odds, hoping lightning strikes twice in consecutive Derbies.
Did someone mention Rich Strike? The horse who somehow won last year’s Derby after backdooring into the field with five minutes to spare, then slaloming from 17th place with a half-mile to go to somehow win the most prestigious race in North America—at 80.80-1?
Because memories are short and because you can’t resist trying to catch the lightning you likely missed last year, Kentucky Derby 149 opened with five horses carrying morning-line odds of 50-1: Reincarnate (Post 7), Jace’s Road (Post 12), Sun Thunder (Post 13), Raise Cain (Post 16) and Japanese import Continuar (Post 20). The latter, starting in Rich Strike’s Post 20, is likely to be the longest shot in the field when the gates open for the Derby a hair before 7 p.m. ET Saturday.
Need for Speed
Now that we’ve disposed of the flotsam, let’s discuss the jetsam and what it takes to be taken seriously as a Derby contender.
Speed. Tactical speed. Front-end speed, the kind you find in pace-setters, pressers and stalkers, the typical Derby-winning genus in the points era. The reason Rich Strike, a dead-on nails closer, was able to cruise in from the clouds was because of an incendiary early pace that fried five horses, including two of the pre-race favorites: Taiba and Messier.
You want horses who have a Beyer Speed Figure north of 95, since according to Horse Racing Nation, 27 of the last 31 cashable Derby winners had a 95 or better on their resume.
Seven horses check that box: 3-1 morning-line favorite Forte (a 100), 10-1 Practical Move (100), 12-1 Two Phils (a field-best 101), 5-1 second favorite Tapit Trice (99), 15-1 Verifying (99), 20-1 Skinner (99), Reincarnate (95) and 12-1 Kingsbarns (95).
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Who has the Stamina?
Taking that one step further, you want a horse who illustrates they can maintain that speed for 1 ¼ miles, a distance none of them have run before and likely won’t run again. Two trusted measuring sticks come into play here.
The first came from track publicist and former Louisville Courier-Journal writer Jennie Rees, who—following a tip from trainer Phil Thomas—devised the Final Fractions Theory. This measures how likely a Derby horse is to sustain their speed for those 10 furlongs by how fast they finished their final Derby prep of at least 1 1/8 miles.
The key: did they finish their last furlong in 13 seconds or faster and/or did they finish their last three furlongs in 38 seconds or faster. Illustrating how wide open this field appears on paper, 19 of the 20 horses in the field checked both boxes. The lone outlier? Continuar.
More Criteria to Check
However, we have another method to cull the herd on that front. That comes from Santa Anita Park and Del Mar morning-line author and Xpressbet columnist Jon White, who devised the Derby Strikes System. This puts Derby horses through eight different criteria, docking them a strike for every box they fail to check.
Probably White’s most important category of the eight is No. 3: The Eighth Pole Category. White uses this as a measure of how strongly a horse is running in the stretch. A horse must be either first or second at the eighth pole in either of their last two Derby preps with a furlong to go. According to White, 56 of the last 60 Derby winners were either first or second with a furlong to go. Rich Strike (fourth at the eighth pole) was one of the four failing this test.
The horses flunking that test in this year’s field include Forte. Others include Lord Miles, Disarm, Skinner, Sun Thunder, King Russell and—not surprisingly—Continuar.
Again, all of this—as we saw last year—is so inexact a science as to render “science” almost meaningless. But a key fundamental of Derby handicapping is weeding out the horses who don’t have a chance.
Once you cull that herd, you want to find horses with juicy odds you can pack on the bottom of your exacta, trifecta and superfecta wagers. Horses who can outrun those odds, much like Simplification did last year en route to finishing fourth at 35-1. Or Instilled Regard did in 2018—finishing fourth at 85-1.
This year’s candidates include Two Phil’s (12-1), Kingsbarns (12-1), Verifying (15-1) and Skinner (20-1). Expect Skinner’s odds to drift north of his morning line. If you get any of the other three at or near their morning lines, run—do not walk—and bet them.
Verifying was one of our five horses to put on your Derby ticket. But who to put atop it?
So Who are the Contenders?
There are realistically four horses to consider: Forte, Practical Move, Tapit Trice and Angel of Empire. Yes, you’re looking at a 20-horse field where the favorite hasn’t won since Justify in 2018. And speaking of favorites, expect Forte’s odds to drift south of his 3-1 morning-line. He has done nothing but win six of seven—including four Grade 1s—and more than $2.4 million.
Todd Pletcher, one of the elite trainers in the world and a bettor’s darling, trains the Violence colt. East Coast horses typically take most of the Derby money, especially with the suspended Bob Baffert absent. This is the last year of his two-year suspension from Churchill Downs.
That’s one reason we’re taking a more Practical path—opting for Practical Move. He opens at 10-1, ridiculous value for a horse checking all of the speed boxes and none of White’s Derby Strikes Systems boxes. He comes in 3-for-his-last-3, with the Grade 1 Santa Anita Derby and Grade 2 San Felipe Stakes—two top preps—on his resume. And the Tim Yakteen-trained colt comes in with the stalking style that plays very well in most Derbies. Practical Move’s No. 10 post has sent nine horses to the winner’s circle, second most of any gate position.
You may not get 10-1 on him come post time. But we’ll get this practical selection and decision out of the way early. Lightning won’t strike twice.
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