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Four Year Trends Under The Kentucky Derby Points System

Mario Gutierrez rode Nyquist to the victory in the 142nd Kentucky Derby (Dylan Buell/Getty Images)
Four Year Trends Under The Kentucky Derby Points System

The dust has hardly settled on Nyquist’s win in the 142nd Kentucky Derby, but that does not stop us from looking back on his race as well several other Kentucky Derbies. 2016 marked the fourth year of the Kentucky Derby Points System that helps determine the entrants into the race. Below we will take a look at the last four years (2013 through 2016) under the Points System as well as the four years prior to the Points System (2009 through 2012).

Some trends have become apparent in the last few years, but keep in mind that 4 years of data is hardly enough to start planning a strategy around betting the 2017 Kentucky Derby. And anyone who has followed horse racing knows this sport can turn in a hurry. Let’s look at the first trend of the winners in the last eight years.

Favorites Dominate Kentucky Derby Under Points System

The favorites have won each of the first four runnings of the Kentucky Derby under the points system. In the four years prior to the Points System, the favorite never won and only one to hit the board was Bodemeister in 2012 with his wonderful front running effort. The tables below show each of the last 8 years.

4 Years Since Start of Kentucky Derby Points System
Year Winner $2 Win $2 Exacta Field Size Favorite Finish
2016 Nyquist $6.60 (Fav) $30.60 20 Winner
2015 American Pharoah $7.80 (Fav) $72.60 18 Winner
2014 California Chrome $7.00 (Fav) $340.00 19 Winner
2013 Orb $12.80 (Fav) $981.60 19 Winner

 

4 Years Prior to Start of Kentucky Derby Points System
Year Winner $2 Win $2 Exacta Field Size Favorite Finish
2012 I’ll Have Another $30.60 $306.60 20 2nd
2011 Animal Kingdom $43.80 $329.80 19 8th
2010 Super Saver $18.00 $152.40 20 6th
2009 Mine That Bird $103.20 $2,074.80 19 18th

One thing to keep is mind is that the favorites are so for a reason: they are considered to be one of the best going into the race. This is quite true for each of the last four horses. Nyquist was considered the best three year old, though there were concerns whether he could handle a mile and a quarter. American Pharoah and California Chrome were considered stand outs against their peers while Orb was a tepid favorite, but still highly regarded to get the distance and had a beloved trainer in his corner.

Even the exactas have gotten chalkier since the start of the Points System. Orb’s exacta paid just short of a grand, but is has been shorter since then including a paltry $30.60 with Nyquist and Exaggerator going 1-2 this year. It is hard to see the payout getting much smaller than that unless there are two towering choices in 2017.

California Based Horses Rise To The Top Under Points System

California horse racing is known for its speed. The horses are bred to go as fast as possible as soon as possible. That does not exactly seem like a recipe for getting a mile and a quarter, but we have seen a shift of 3 year old dominance to the West Coast.

Consider this: 4 of the last 5 horses to win the Kentucky Derby have spent significant time based in California during their two and/or three year old season.

Nyquist (2016): Ran five of his eight races in California. His three races outside of the state have been in Kentucky (Breeders’ Cup Juvenile and now Derby) and Florida (Florida Derby), which happens to be the site of his three biggest career wins.

American Pharoah (2015): Ran all three of his two year old races in California before being shipped between California and Arkansas for his Derby Preps. It worked well as he went on to become the first Triple Crown Winner since Affirmed in 1978.

California Chrome (2014): He ran 10 races in California prior to the Kentucky Derby.

Orb (2013): He wintered in Florida where he won three races before winning the Kentucky Derby.

I’ll Have Another (2012): He raced twice in California as a two year old before a poor race at Saratoga to end his season. At three, he stayed in California before heading to the Kentucky Derby.

Animal Kingdom (2011) and Super Saver (2010) were nomadic in their careers prior to the Derby. Mine That Bird (2009) did have a race in California as a two year old, but it was a stopover in the Breeders’ Cup after his career started in Canada. He eventually landed at Sunland Park before his unlikely Derby win.

For whatever reasons, California has churned out the Kentucky Derby prospects and they are not just winning. They are also doing well enough to hit the board the last two years. Nyquist and Exaggerator went 1-2 this year while American Pharoah, Firing Line, and Dortmund went 1-2-3 in 2015. Again, two years of data in dominating the exacta is far from a serious trend, but is still worth noting.

Position of Winners Under Points System

Another trend that has begun to emerge from the last four years is not just favorites or Californian horses winning the Kentucky Derby. It is also how they are winning the race. Each of the last three years the winning horses have been very close to the lead with none of the them being worse than third during their race. The tables below provide some insight as to where the winners were during their race.

4 Years Since Start of Kentucky Derby Points System
Year Winner 1/4 Split 1/2 Split 3/4 Split 1 Mile Split Final Time Field Size Track Condition Winning Style
2016 Nyquist 22.58 45.72 1:10.40 1:35.61 2:01.31 20 Fast Near Front / Presser
2015 American Pharoah 23.24 47.34 1:11.29 1:36.45 2:03.02 18 Fast Near Front / Presser
2014 California Chrome 23.04 47.37 1:11.80 1:37.45 2:03.66 19 Fast Near Front / Presser
2013 Orb 22.57 45.33 1:09.80 1:36.16 2:02.89 19 Sloppy (Sealed) Deep Closer

 

4 Years Prior to Start of Kentucky Derby Points System
Year Winner 1/4 Split 1/2 Split 3/4 Split 1 Mile Split Final Time Field Size Track Condition Winning Style
2012 I’ll Have Another 22.32 45.39 1:09.80 1:35.19 2:01.83 20 Fast Off Leaders / Stalking
2011 Animal Kingdom 23.24 48.63 1:13.40 1:37.49 2:02.04 19 Fast Mid Pack / Closer
2010 Super Saver 22.63 46.16 1:10.58 1:37.65 2:04.45 20 Sloppy (Sealed) Off Leaders / Stalking
2009 Mine That Bird 22.98 47.23 1:12.09 1:37.49 2:02.66 19 Sloppy (Sealed) Deep Closer

In the five previous Kentucky Derbies (2009-2013), runners close to the pace were usually nowhere to be found. As previously mentioned, Bodemeister set the pace in the 2012 Kentucky Derby won by I’ll Have Another and finished second. Shackleford tried to wire the field in 2011, but finished fourth by 3 3/4 lengths. Super Saver was close to the lead in terms of position, but was more than 5 lengths off the pace until the mile marker. Pioneerof the Nile (Sire of American Pharoah) was close throughout his Kentucky Derby run (never more than 3 lengths off the lead) while finishing second to Mine That Bird.

One of the hardest conclusions to draw is from race position. Each Kentucky Derby is completely different in how it is run. How many horses were setting the pace? Was there any pressure on the leader(s)? How was the track condition? How did the track condition affect the shape of the race? Did one of the speed horses not break well? Those are just a few of the many questions that can have different answers each year in how the race was run.

Nevertheless, the trend is there that horses near the front are doing well. However, keep in mind that the last three years, the top 3 year old entering the Derby was considered above the rest of the crop. Perhaps this is nothing more than the best horse in the race having a similar style and just being better than their peers.

Speed Under the Kentucky Derby Points System

Last year I postulated that the Kentucky Derby was slowing down in terms of time. After three years of data it appeared to be correct, but then 2016 happened. This year the Kentucky Derby went in 22.58 for the quarter and 45.72 for the opening half-mile. 2015 saw the same fractions go in 23.24 and 47.34, respectively. As stated two paragraphs above, the shape of the race is contingent on many different factors. The draw, the track condition, if a bias is present on the track, the break at the start of the race, etc. all can completely change how a race is run and won, especially in a race with as many as 20 horses.

Conclusion

What you have read above was worth pointing out, but by no means should sculpt one’s handicapping for the 2017 Kentucky Derby. The favorites have dominated the last four years and the winner has run the same race in the last three years. Does that mean it will continue? Not at all, but the trend can also still continue in 2017.

What makes the Derby so different (and difficult) is there is no race to compare it. There are no other races for 3 year olds that are run at a mile and a quarter AND allow 20 horses. The uniqueness of it allows it to be one of, if not the, most popular races each year. That uniqueness also makes it hard to find parallels as noted above.

Horse racing is a fickle sport. The highest highs can be followed by the lowest lows. The trends laid out above could easily be blown apart when a horse completely changes tactics (see Palace Malice in the 2013 Kentucky Derby). A real, concrete pattern may not emerge for another decade or more (four years is hardly a great basis for drawing a solid conclusion). A lot of things can change in the next decade which may show this four year trend as an anomaly. 

One trend that will not probably change is my picking of the Kentucky Derby Toss. I had #9 Destin this year and he finished 6th. In addition, there will probably be an article like this one looking back at five year trends instead of four year trends. Enjoy the Triple Crown!

American Pharoah Wins Preakness Easily In The Slop

American Pharoah (center) wins the 2015 Preakness Stakes with Victor Espinoza aboard (Patrick Smith/Getty Images)
American Pharoah (center) wins the 2015 Preakness Stakes with Victor Espinoza aboard (Patrick Smith/Getty Images)

American Pharoah Wins Preakness Easily In The Slop

A torrential downpour that began about 15 minutes prior to the start of the Preakness Stakes did not matter. In fact, it probably helped the Kentucky Derby winner American Pharoah dominate his foes by 7 lengths in a gate-to-wire performance.

The race began with American Pharoah hustled to the lead by jockey Victor Espinoza. Mr. Z was also gunned to the lead while Dortmund settled in third about 5 lengths off the lead. Divining Rod was fourth, Bodhisattva as fifth, and Firing Line was sixth. Danzig Moon sat in seventh early on,about 9 lengths off the lead while Tale of Verve was nearly 15 lengths off the leader in last.

American Pharoah was not relinquishing that lead as he led the field through an opening quarter mile in 22.90 and an opening half mile in 46.49. He was still being tracked by Mr. Z and Dortmund was moved outside to track from third. Divining Rod sat fourth, Firing Line was up to fifth, Bodhisattva was sixth, Danzig Moon was seventh, and Tale of Verve was last of eight.

Entering the far turn, Mr. Z, Dortmund, and Divining Rod all began to make their moves, but American Pharoah was having none of that as he began to pull away when the straightened out in the stretch.

It was clear that no one was going to catch him at that point and he would end up winning by 7 lengths. Longshot Tale of Verve rallied to be second over Divining Rod in third and Dortmund held on for fourth place.

The remaining order of finish was Mr. Z, Danzig Moon, Firing Line, and Bodhisattva. The official chart can be found here courtesy of Equibase.

American Pharoah went off as the 4-5 favorite and paid $3.80 to win, $3.40 to place, and $2.80 to show. He ran the one mile and three sixteenths in 1:58.46 over a very sloppy race track. He also won $900,000 as the winner’s share of the $1.5 million purse.

He is trained by Bob Baffert who will be making his fourth attempt at winning the Triple Crown. He previously failed to win it with Silver Charm in 1997, Real Quiet in 1998, and War Emblem in 2002.

Jockey Victor Espinoza was aboard for War Emblem’s failed Triple Crown attempt in 2002 and he was also aboard for California Chrome’s failed attempt in 2014.

American Pharoah will try to become the first horse to win the Triple Crown since Affirmed in 1978. Thirteen horses have won the Kentucky Derby and Preakness Stakes, but failed to win the Belmont Stakes. One horse, I’ll Have Another, did not race due to a foot injury discovered the day before the Belmont.

The Belmont will be run at one and a half miles on Saturday, June 6. It is called “The Test of a Champion” due to the taxing nature of a race at 12 furlongs. If American Pharoah does win the Belmont Stakes, he will be the 12th Triple Crown winner in history.

2015 Preakness Stakes Preview

The Preakness Stakes is the second jewel of the Triple Crown (Maryland Jockey Club)
The Preakness Stakes is the second jewel of the Triple Crown (Maryland Jockey Club)

2015 Preakness Stakes Preview

The second jewel of American’s Thoroughbred Triple Crown will be run on Saturday from Pimlico Race Course in Baltimore, Maryland.

This year a field of eight three-year olds will be going postward including the 2015 Kentucky Derby winner American Pharoah. In no surprise, he is listed as the overwhelming favorite to win the 2015 Preakness Stakes at 4-5.

The Preakness Stakes will be run at one mile and three-sixteenths (one sixteenth of a mile shorter than the Kentucky Derby) for a purse of $1,500,000.

Post time for the Preakness Stakes is approximately 6:18 PM Eastern Time and is carded as the thirteenth of 14 races at Pimlico. Free past performances for the Preakness can be found here.

The table below provides the entries for the Preakness Stakes as well.

Post PositionHorseJockeyTrainerMorning Line Odds
1American PharoahVictor EspinozaBob Baffert4-5
2DortmundMartin GarciaBob Baffert3-1
3Mr. ZCorey NakataniD. Wayne Lukas20-1
4Danzig MoonJulien LeparouxMark Casse15-1
5Tale of VerveJoel RosarioDallas Stewart30-1
6BodhisattvaTrevor McCarthyJose Corrales20-1
7Divining RodJavier CastellanoArnaud Delacour12-1
8Firing LineGary StevensSimon Callaghan4-1

1. American Pharoah – He has done nothing wrong since he finished fifth in his debut. He dominated the Grade 2 Rebel Stakes with a 6 1/4 length win and then throttled the Grade 1 Arkansas Derby field by 8 lengths. His Kentucky Derby was not nearly as impressive to his previous races, but he did get the job done. In this spot, he rates as the horse to beat and should get another great trip even from the rail.

2. DortmundBob Baffert was a bit unlucky to draw the 1 and 2 post positions here, but at least he did it here and not in Kentucky. In the post race coverage, it was reported that Dortmund had a “slight bout of colic,” which was unknown to nearly every bettor. Whether that was the reason he did not win is a different story. He got away with easy fractions in the Derby and little pressure from Firing Line. From this spot, he will probably have to go to the lead again and could once again be the controlling pace in the race.

3. Mr. Z – What a bizarre tale Mr. Z has been the last two weeks. He was not seriously considered for the Preakness and former owner Ahmed Zayat even said so earlier this week. Well, he has been sold to Calumet Farm and will run in this race anyway. In any case, Mr. Z is up against it here despite his “troubled” trip in the Kentucky Derby. He will need to improve by leaps and bounds to be a threat to win.

4. Danzig Moon – He ran a solid race in the Kentucky Derby though he did not really improve his position much during the running of the race. He was bumped during the race, but he was not likely to challenge the top four with the pace they were running at. It is difficult to decide what to do with him knowing he was not a threat to the top three that return here.

5. Tale of Verve – He was the also-eligible for the Kentucky Derby, but was not able to get in by scratch time. He does have a win at this distance of 9.5 furlongs last time out, but that was against maiden company and he faced only 5 other horses. Perhaps this is the obligatory Dallas Stewart longshot entrant, but this horse is not the same caliber as the others here.

6. Bodhisattva – He won the local prep race for the Preakness Stakes here at Pimlico in the Federico Tesio. He went to the lead, was headed in the stretch, and then fought back for the win by a length and a half. He is the only horse in this field to even have a race over this track, let alone a victory and he also has the local connections. It still feels like a tall task for him here.

7. Divining Rod – There has been some chatter about this horse being the wise guy’s selection. He was second by a neck in the Grade 3 Sam F. Davis behind Ocean Knight in his first start on lasix. He was no match for Carpe Diem in the Grade 2 Tampa Bay Derby and won the Grade 3 Lexington Stakes with a perfect trip and ride at Keeneland five weeks ago. He should be able to work out another good trip, but the question is can he really threaten the top 3? The feeling here is most likely not.

8. Firing Line – He was right near the lead in the Kentucky Derby making sure that Dortmund did not get away from him. He pushed American Pharoah all the way to the finish line, but was unable to get the victory. This is an incredible post for him as he will be able to get a perfect trip. He seems likeliest of all to turn the tables on American Pharoah.

Selections

It is an unfortunate conclusion to come to in this race, but this really seems to be a three horse race. #1 American Pharoah is the horse to beat based on his body of work, but #8 Firing Line got an excellent draw all the way to the outside. Of course, we cannot count out #2 Dortmund to return to his winning way he showed in his first six starts. Who will finish fourth, or possibly higher if one or more of the favorites falter, is the real question.

Top selection – #8 Firing Line

2nd selection – #1 American Pharoah

3rd selection – #6 Dortmund

4th selection – #4 Danzig Moon

Check back on Saturday evening for a recap of the 2015 Preakness Stakes.

2015 Preakness Stakes Draw

American Pharoah (#18 on the left) winning the 2015 Kentucky Derby (Reuters Photo)
American Pharoah (#18 on the left) winning the 2015 Kentucky Derby (Reuters Photo)

2015 Preakness Stakes Draw

The 2015 Preakness Stakes draw took place on Wednesday afternoon at Pimlico Race Course in Baltimore, Maryland. It is in three days time that we will see if American Pharoah can win the second leg of the Triple Crown.

With only a field of 8 horses entered there should not be much traffic trouble in this race compared to the Kentucky Derby. The entries for the 2015 Preakness Stakes can be found in the table below.

Post PositionHorseJockeyTrainerMorning Line Odds
1American PharoahVictor EspinozaBob Baffert4-5
2DortmundMartin GarciaBob Baffert3-1
3Mr. ZCorey NakataniD. Wayne Lukas20-1
4Danzig MoonJulien LeparouxMark Casse15-1
5Tale of VerveJoel RosarioDallas Stewart30-1
6BodhisattvaTrevor McCarthyJose Corrales20-1
7Divining RodJavier CastellanoArnaud Delacour12-1
8Firing LineGary StevensSimon Callaghan4-1

Bob Baffert, trainer of the two inside horses including Kentucky Derby winner American Pharoah, was less than enthusiastic about the draw.

“I never like the 1 hole. That’s the first time I’ve ever drawn the rail here. I’ve been so lucky. You don’t like to see it, but if he’s the best horse we’ll find out,” Baffert said.

Meanwhile, Firing Line‘s jockey Gary Stevens was excited about drawing the outside post in the Preakness.

“I’m pleased not so much where I drew but where Dortmund and American Pharoah drew – 1, 2 – and Mr. Z outside of them,” Stevens said. “I expect Mr. Z to show more speed than he had in the Kentucky Derby with new ownership. Wayne’s going out for the kill; that’s going to make those guys make some decisions earlier in the race that they didn’t have the benefit of making in the Kentucky Derby. Now, I’ve got that benefit.”

As mentioned in Gary Stevens’ quote above, Mr. Z was sold by Ahmed Zayat to Calumet Farm in order to race in the Preakness. He will still be trained by D. Wayne Lukas.

The Preakness Stakes is carded as the 13th of 14 races at Pimlico on Saturday. The approximate post time is 6:18 PM Eastern Time with the eight three year olds going a mile and three sixteenths over the main track. Free past performances can be found here.

Check back in the next few days to read a preview and analysis of the 2015 Preakness Stakes.

Unanswered Questions From The 2015 Kentucky Derby

American Pharoah (#18 forefront furthest left) defeats Firing Line and Dortmund in the 2015 Kentucky Derby (Elsa/Getty Images North America)
American Pharoah (#18 forefront furthest left) defeats Firing Line and Dortmund in the 2015 Kentucky Derby (Elsa/Getty Images North America)

Unanswered Questions From The 2015 Kentucky Derby

The 2015 Kentucky Derby was an exciting race that saw American Pharoah defeat Firing Line by one length. There were even some lessons learned that could be applied in the future.

While the dust settles and the Preakness contenders are considered, there are still some questions that need to be answered even if it will not happen for many months (or possibly years).

Below are unanswered questions from the 2015 Kentucky Derby.

1. Were the Top Four Finishers that much Better than the Rest?

The top four finishers in the Kentucky Derby were American Pharoah, Firing Line, Dortmund, and Frosted. Those four were separated by 3 1/4 lengths while the rest were at least another 3 1/4 lengths behind.

It was an easy pace for the top three as they went around the track basically as the top three throughout the running of the Kentucky Derby. Frosted was the only one of the top four horses who had to close late and he barely missed third by a shortening head.

But were they really that much better than the rest of the field? Perhaps they are just head and shoulders above the rest of the horses in the Kentucky Derby, but that is probably not the case.

We will see over the next few months if the top four really were better than every other horse.

2. How Good is this Crop as a Whole?

Coming into the race, we had a pretty good idea about Dortmund and American Pharoah, as well as several other horses such as Materiality, Carpe Diem, Upstart, and Frosted.

It turned out that American Pharoah and Dortmund were better than nearly everyone else in the Kentucky Derby.

The caveat here is that we will not be able to answer this question for many months because these horses are still going to face fellow three year olds for the next few months. If we want to compare crops, we will not be able to do so for a few years when most of these horses will no longer be competing.

Many have said this is one of the more talented and deep three year old crops in the last decade and Saturday’s Kentucky Derby results may just prove how good they are if the top four continue to dominate. The real question then becomes how the fringe horses, those who are considered good, but not yet at the same level as the top four, do later this year.

It will be an intriguing journey to watch, that is for sure and there will be plenty of opportunities in the fall for the three year olds to match up against older horses.

3. Is American Pharoah a Legitimate Threat to Win the Triple Crown?

In the immediate aftermath of the Kentucky Derby (literally the first 10 or 15 minutes after the conclusion of the race), many opinions are thrown around about whether or not a horse can go on and win the elusive Triple Crown.

Well, that is only going to intensify with the advent of social media to get opinions out there within mere second of the conclusion and there are usually only two camps; one that is adamant he will win the Triple Crown and another that is adamant he will not win the Triple Crown.

This author falls in the latter camp that does not think he will win the Triple Crown. Of course, that is hardly an inclination of whether or not he will.

First, he must win the Preakness before even having a shot at winning the Triple Crown, but he is quite likely to win the Preakness shortening up a half furlong.

Secondly, he had a dream trip in the Kentucky Derby just off of Dortmund and Firing Line, but he did not have that huge burst of speed at the top of the stretch to pull away from his foes. Then again, maybe he was being saved by Victor Espinoza.

Third, the Belmont is called the Test of Champions for a reason. It is the third race in five weeks and it will be American Pharoah’s fourth race in eight weeks. There is a reason 13 horses have tried since 1978 and failed to win the Triple Crown. The grueling mile and a half journey will not be kind to him.

Again, none of this is a guarantee American Pharoah will not win the Triple Crown, but history is against him.

4. What do we do with the horses that finished well?

Given the slow pace of the Kentucky Derby, it is hardly a shock that few horses were able to close in the final quarter of a mile. On Saturday, there were only three horses that were really identified as being able to make up ground in the stretch.

Below is an image (courtesy of Blood-Horse) of the horses turning for home to provide an idea of where each horse was.

2015 Derby Final Turn

The three horses we will focus on are #3 Materiality (near the top of the photo) #14 Keen Ice (to the left of Materiality) and #15 Frosted (middle of the photo to the left).

The most impressive of the three horses mentioned was Materiality, who came from way back in the field as seen in the photo. He did well to go from nearly last to sixth in the final quarter of a mile and he ran the final two furlongs in :25.61, according to the Daily Racing Form. None of that even mentions the poor start he had.

Frosted was the only horse to be shown during the live running of the race to have closed well. He just missed third place from Dortmund, but he was closing even prior to the final quarter of a mile. Between the six furlong and one mile calls, Frosted went from 15th to 7th and ran that quarter of a mile in :23.97.

He slowed down in the stretch, but still did well to make up the ground he did into such a slow pace. His final quarter was timed in :25.98.

The only other horse to make up ground was Keen Ice. Coming into the Kentucky Derby, most knew he would make one run and needed some pace to have a chance to hit the board. That proved to be the case.

He was immediately brought to the fence at the start of the race and continued to race near the back of the field throughout. At the top of the stretch he had five horses beaten and then closed to to finish seventh, losing by 8 3/4 lengths.

The obvious thinking here is that these horses will be prime candidates at Belmont going a mile and a half in the Belmont Stakes.

Just last year, Wicked Strong and Commanding Curve (the fourth and second place finishers in the Kentucky Derby respectively), were considered possibilities to win. The former finished in a dead heat for fourth and the latter was eighth.

In 2013, the second and third place finishers from the Derby, Golden Soul and Revolutionary, were the deep closers who hit the board in Kentucky. They finished ninth and fifth respectively in the Belmont Stakes.

In 2012, Dullahan closed to finish third in the Derby, but failed to do so at Belmont. He finished seventh as the 5/2 favorite that day.

Ice Box in 2010 was expected to do well in the Belmont Stakes. He ran fast closing second in the Derby, but failed at the 9/5 favorite in the Belmont by finishing ninth.

A lot of people think back to a deep closer winning the Belmont in Jazil (2006). That was nearly a decade ago. The problem with deep closers is two-fold. First, the pace of the race needs to be somewhat fast for a mile and a half. Second, they need to be able to get a mile and a half.

Deep closers can win the Belmont, they just need a lot of things to break their way in order to do it.

5. Is the Kentucky Derby Points System Working?

This is a tricky question because everyone has a different idea of how it should work. 2015 marks the third year of the Kentucky Derby points system. Coincidentally, it also marks the third straight year that a favorite won the Kentucky Derby. Make of that what you will.

It is probably not a mistake that the fractions have slowed down dramatically since the inception of the points system. 2013 saw an opening quarter go in 22.57 and the opening half mile in 45.33. In 2014, it was 23.04 and 47.37 while 2015 was 23.24 and 47.34.

The reason for this is simple. There is no more cheap speed in the Kentucky Derby. In 2012, the last year without a points system, a horse named Trinniberg entered the Kentucky Derby. His prep racing coming into the Derby was the Grade 3 Bay Shore Stakes at 7 furlongs on the main track. He ended 2012 by winning the Grade 1 Breeders’ Cup Sprint.

There can still be unexpected speed in the race. Take 2013, for example, when Palace Malice shocked nearly everyone when he went straight to the lead under Mike Smith and tried to go gate-to-wire though he tired on the far turn.

It is clear that the Kentucky Derby points system is keeping sprinters out of the Kentucky Derby and that is not necessarily a bad thing. However, it has led to slower fractions and favorites winning the last three years. It is up to you to decide if that means the system is working.

Perhaps, and this is simply conjecture, is that more horses will be bred to go the classic distance of a mile and a quarter. It is still possible to have speed going 10 furlongs, though stamina will be needed to allow a horse to last the distance.

The Kentucky Derby points system will be fun to keep an eye on for the future and how it affects those who enter in Derby prep races. We may continue to see favorites or we may start to see a parade of long shots.

What We Learned From The 2015 Kentucky Derby

American Pharoah beat Firing Line by a length in the 2015 Kentucky Derby. What lies ahead for the 2 year old champion? (David J. Phillip / AP Photo)
American Pharoah beat Firing Line by a length in the 2015 Kentucky Derby. What lies ahead for the 2 year old champion? (David J. Phillip / AP Photo)

What We Learned From The 2015 Kentucky Derby

We are approximately one day removed from the 2015 Kentucky Derby and American Pharoah‘s one length victory, but there are still some lessons that we learned. There are also some questions that remain unanswered.

Below is what we learned from the 141st Kentucky Derby.

1. Pace Makes the Race

It seems so simple, but it was clearly true for the Kentucky Derby on Saturday. Dortmund led Firing Line and Pharoah through some dawdling fractions for the Derby. His opening quarter was in 23.24 and opening half mile went in 47.34.

For horses of that caliber, that is a cake-walk and makes them very difficult to defeat. The first quarter of a mile in 23.24 was the third slowest since 2000.

Now, it is clear why so few horses were able to make up ground. The leading trio set an easy pace and were able to stride home without much of a chance of fading back to the rest of the field.

2. Todd Pletcher Continues To Struggle in the Derby

This probably is not news to most avid followers of horse racing. After his three horses failed to win on Saturday, trainer Todd Pletcher now stands at 1 for 46 in the Kentucky Derby. His lone win was Super Saver in 2010.

What is amazing is that few trainers, if any, get more highly regarded two year olds than he does. Yet, he has a sub par record of leading those two year olds to Kentucky Derby success. He has had some good horses in the past, but this was regarded as part of his best crop of three year olds.

To be fair, Pletcher has not had the best luck when it comes to the Derby. In 2011, he had highly regarded Uncle Mo only to see that horse scratch prior to the Derby. Just a year earlier in 2010, Pletcher had Eskendereya scratch from the race and he probably would have been favored.

It will be difficult to back any Pletcher trained horse in the Kentucky Derby for a while, at least from this perspective.

3. Foreign Horses Have Yet To Make a Serious Impact

Despite all the hype regarding Mubtaahij’s chances in this year’s Kentucky Derby (full disclosure: this author had him as the top selection. Ouch.), he only managed to finish eighth.

If we go back to 2009 when Regal Ransom tried the UAE Derby to Kentucky Derby route, we will see that a serious trend has developed.

In 2009, Regal Ransom won the UAE Derby and then finished eighth in the Kentucky Derby. In 2011, Master of Hounds finished second in the UAE Derby, then went on to finish a respectable fifth in the Kentucky Derby.

In 2012, Daddy Long Legs won the UAE Derby and then finished last (20th) in the Kentucky Derby when he had to be eased. The 2013 UAE Derby winner Lines Of Battle finished seventh in the Kentucky Derby and last year Toast of New York was not pointed towards the Kentucky Derby.

However, Toast of New York did run well at Del Mar on polytrack finishing second in the Grade 1 Pacific Classic. He then ran second in the Grade 1 Breeders’ Cup Classic on dirt to end the year.

So what does all of this mean?

That foreign horses run decent races, but are not a serious threat to win the Kentucky Derby at this time. This could be due to the large amount of travel they have to do from Dubai (or wherever they ship from) to the United States. That can take a lot out of a horse.

Another reason could be the breeding. Most foreign bred horses are simply not bred to run on dirt. Yes, some do well over the main track (see Toast of New York or Giant’s Causeway), but by and large, most are not suited for it. It is the same way with American turf horses going overseas. They are usually trounced on turf in France, Great Britain, Dubai, or Hong Kong because they are not as royally bred to win on turf (and at longer distances).

That does not mean that it cannot change in the future. It very well could, but not for the foreseeable future.

4. The Win Odds Do Not Reflect Real Chances

This is a nice way of saying some people do not know the way odds work. The best examples that can be provided from the 2015 Kentucky Derby are in the form of Ocho Ocho Ocho and Mr. Z.

Ocho Ocho Ocho went off at odds of 26.10-1, which equates to a $2 win payoff of $54.20. That means that Ocho Ocho Ocho had roughly a 4% chance of winning, based on the odds. However, most people would agree that he had a far worse chance of winning the Kentucky Derby, meaning his odds were not in line with the expected payoff.

The other, and best, example is that of Mr. Z. While we can debate whether he should have been in the Kentucky Derby, his off odds of 36.60-1 did not provide fair value. Unless a person thought he had a 3% chance of winning (or better), then those odds were a steal. However, looking at his form coming into the Kentucky Derby, he had a sliver of a chance in this race, thus making his win odds disproportionately negative for those who bet him.

Seeing disproportionate win odds is nothing new, however. Call it the “Mine That Bird” effect. When Mine That Bird won the Kentucky Derby in 2009 at odds of 50.60-1, he shocked many with the victory (including this author).

What we saw in the subsequent years were ridiculous odds that were far too low. In 2010, the Kentucky Derby saw only two horses at odds of 30-1 or higher. In 2011, no horse went off at odds higher than 40-1.

There was a bit more realism in the wagering for 2012 when two horses went off at odds of 55-1 or higher, but 2013 was back to no horses under 40-1 on the tote board. Even last year saw no horse go off at odds of 50-1 or higher.

In 2015, we saw a horse go off at nearly 70-1 odds (Frammento went off at 69.50-1).

There are two reasons for this “Mine That Bird” effect. The first is that people want to be on a long shot, any long shot regardless of the odds. If a horse is 30-1, people want to be able to say “I picked the 30-1 winner of the Kentucky Derby” and it does not matter if that horse should have been 50-1.

The other reason is that there has been a parade of long shots winning prior before 2013. I’ll Have Another won at 15-1 in 2012, Animal Kingdom won at 20-1 in 2011, Super Saver won at 8-1 in 2010, and Mine That Bird won at 50-1 in 2009.

Of course, the favorites have won the last 3 years, which may produce more realistic odds in the future.

5. Luck Will Always Be Needed To Win the Kentucky Derby

This sounds intuitive, and it is, but this is worth repeating. Luck is a big part of winning the Kentucky Derby. A bad step here or there and you will have to take your horse out of the race.

For example, we saw Stanford, El Kabeir, and International Star all scratch prior to the race. The latter two were due to foot issues while the former was made to point to a different race. Had Stanford stayed in, perhaps the pace would have been quicker and allowed closers a better chance. We will never know.

Another reason why luck is a part of it is in the draw for the race. Todd Pletcher had bad luck when his two best horses drew side-by-side at two (Carpe Diem) and three (Materiality) in the gate. It is widely accepted that drawing to the inside is at a disadvantage due to the amount of horses that come over to the rail from the outside going into the first turn. The draw could have affected the pace of the race as well. Then again, maybe it would not have mattered at all.

No matter how you look at it, luck is and always will be part of the Kentucky Derby equation.

This is what we learned from the 2015 Kentucky Derby, but what questions still linger after the running of the 141st Kentucky Derby? Be sure to check back to find out.

American Pharoah Proves Best In Kentucky Derby 141

Victor Espinoza guides American Pharoah to a one length victory in the 2015 Kentucky Derby (Peter Casey / USA TODAY Sports)
Victor Espinoza guides American Pharoah to a one length victory in the 2015 Kentucky Derby (Peter Casey / USA TODAY Sports)

American Pharoah Proves Best In Kentucky Derby 141

It was billed as a race that was trainer Bob Baffert’s to lose, but he did no such thing. American Pharoah was too much for Firing Line to hold off in the stretch as Baffert’s other entry, Dortmund, held on for third.

The race began well for the eventual top three finishers. Dortmund broke well and went straight to the lead while Gary Stevens was right next to him on Firing Line. Back in third by a length was American Pharoah who was being kept out in the clear by Victor Espinoza.

Bolo, Carpe Diem, and Danzig Moon all started well and were the next three horses in line. Mr. Z was seventh, Ocho Ocho Ocho was eighth, Upstart was ninth, and Tencendur was tenth, but only by about 4 1/2 lengths.

Itsaknockout was eleventh early, Mubtaahij was twelfth, Materiality was thirteen, Frosted was fourteenth, and War Story was fifteenth. The trailing trio were Frammento, Keen Ice, and Far Right with all of them about 14 lengths off the lead after a quarter of a mile.

The top three did not change as they went down the backstretch. Dortmund continued to lead and Firing Line continued to hang right on his flank. Meanwhile, American Pharoah continued to sit in the perfect spot just behind those two.

As they left the far turn and headed into the stretch, American Pharoah came around the leading duo to put in his bid to win the Kentucky Derby. He lead by a head at the stretch call and would slowly pull away from Firing Line to win by a length. It was another two lengths back to Dortmund in third, who barely held on for third over a fast closing Frosted.

The remaining order of finish was Danzig Moon in fifth, Materiality in sixth, Keen Ice in seventh, Mubtaahij in eighth, Itsaknockout ninth, Carpe Diem tenth, Frammento eleventh, Bolo twelfth, Mr. Z thirteenth, Ocho Ocho Ocho fourteenth, Far Right fifteenth, War Story sixteenth, Tencendur seventeenth, and Upstart last of eighteen.

El Kabeir, International Star, and Stanford all scratched leading up to the race. Tale of Verve did not draw into the race with his scratch time early on Friday morning. The entire results chart can be found here via Equibase.

Final running time for the one mile and one quarter race was 2:03.02.

This race, however, was all about the top three. It was trainer Bob Baffert’s fourth Kentucky Derby win after saddling Silver Charm (1997), Real Quiet (1998), and War Emblem (2002).

For jockey Victor Espinoza, it was his third Kentucky Derby win. He was aboard War Emblem in 2002 for Baffert and also won the 2014 Kentucky Derby aboard California Chrome.

American Pharoah went off as the 2.90-1 favorite and paid $7.80 to win, $5.80 to place, and $4.20 to show. He is the third consecutive favorite to win the Kentucky Derby. American Pharoah is owned by Ahmed Zayat, who has now his first Derby.

The second jewel of the Triple Crown is in two weeks at Pimlico racecourse in Baltimore, Maryland. There will probably be a mix of Derby horses and newcomers to challenge American Pharoah. The Preakness is at a mile and three sixteenths and will be held on Saturday, May 16.