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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!

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.