04/27/2012 3:01PM

Crist: Here's why picking Kentucky Derby winner is so hard

Barbara D. Livingston
Bodemeister will be trying to beat Derby history, possibly as the favorite.

The 21st century horseplayer trying to handicap the Kentucky Derby is equipped with tools that were almost unimaginable 25 years ago – unlimited replays of every prep race, lifetime past performances of every entrant with sophisticated speed figures, comprehensive coverage and videos of every entrant’s morning gallops and workouts, and detailed discussion and analysis of every conceivable angle and scenario surrounding the race.

The explosive growth of technology and information makes the 1980s seems like the Dark Ages by comparison. Even professional racing journalists struggled to acquire the most basic information available today to any fan. The most prized invitation for a reporter during Derby Week was not to any of the galas and banquets but to an annual gathering of turf writers in a rented Holiday Inn room, where the author and handicapper Steve Davidowitz had laboriously assembled a videotape of all the 3-year-old stakes races. In those days before widespread simulcasting, much less replays on demand and racing networks and websites, this was the only way to get even one look at races you had not witnessed in person when they were run.

So why, in the midst of this glorious new Information Age, is picking a Derby winner harder than ever?

I think the answer is that the race itself, and the way that horses are prepared for it, has changed as radically as the tools available to horseplayers.

Full fields of up to 20 horses in recent years has made a big difference. There is no longer such a thing as a Derby favorite who scares anyone off, and simply getting a horse to the Derby starting gate has become a badge of success for owners and trainers. Only nine lined up against Spectacular Bid in 1979 because few trainers wanted to run against a clearly superior horse. Today, Pegasus himself could be 1-10 and he would still have 19 opponents (and four on the also-eligible list). Larger fields mean more traffic, more chaos, and a larger pool of plausible contenders, especially for the minor awards that fill out trifectas and superfectas.

Another reason is that Derby entrants today have made so many fewer starts than they used to by this point in their careers. Even without the in-depth coverage available today, we knew more about Derby horses’ capabilities because they had been tested more often, and had established a clearer pecking order among themselves through repeated meetings. There were fewer roads to the Derby, and fewer gaudy prep races that now make every winning owner think his horse belongs in the Kentucky Derby because he won a minor race with “Derby” in its name.

There was a greater chance that horses had run close to their full capabilities by the time they got to the Derby just by making 10 or 12 starts. Now, we have to make a lot of guesses about horses who have run five or six times and are more eligible than their predecessors to make a sudden and sharp leap forward on Derby Day. This has become a staple of modern Derby handicapping, and it’s a highly speculative one: judging a horse’s chances less on what he has actually accomplished so far on the racetrack and more on whether he is poised to deliver a performance unlike any other he has turned in during his brief career.

You can add the introduction of synthetic racing surfaces at a handful of tracks, and increased grass racing for young horses, to the changing landscape. A horse who had never won a race on the dirt would have been considered a no-hoper just a few years ago, but last year Animal Kingdom won the Derby in his first start on it and this year one of the favorites is Dullahan, a two-time Grade 1 winner on Keeneland’s Polytrack but 0 for 3 on the dirt.

All these changes have combined to make it not only harder to select a Derby winner but also less rewarding to look to the past for guidance. Over the last decade we have seen one Derby “rule” after another broken by winners who did not seem to have the requisite foundation or recent experience. It seems silly to cling to old maxims in a rapidly-changing game. Tom Ainslie, the dean of American handicapping authors 50 years ago, advised players never to bet on a horse who had not run in the last 14 days. It was sound advice at the time, but today would disqualify the majority of horses on any given day of racing.

The granddaddy of Derby rules will be put to the test on Saturday. No horse since Apollo in 1882 has won the Derby without racing as a 2-year-old, and that is precisely what Bodemeister will be trying to do, quite possibly as the favorite. There are good reasons to like him and to doubt him, but it’s risky to disqualify him on that basis alone, given that Derby history seems to be becoming ancient history with each passing year.

• Each day during Derby Week, Steven Crist will answer a Kentucky Derby handicapping Question of the Day. Crist will select questions from Facebook, Twitter, his blog, or the comments on this article to tackle on DRF.com next Monday to Friday.

Coopdlite Cooper More than 1 year ago
Ron Fox More than 1 year ago
I agree. Meanwhile bet Alpha and or Dullahan.
chad mc rory More than 1 year ago
Where's waldo
edb More than 1 year ago
Well the draw will help separate the parity of these horses. Don't be Lucky and run into the fence in post one. Lots of 7-1 to 15-1 horses this year with great reasons to bet them. Bode will be a false favorite and Rags is the horse to beat. Track condition also will help Hansen if super fast and Triningberg doesn't have the distance ( last perhaps). Still see Hansen leading going into the stretch and should be in the lower part of the super. Tri should be nice and would love to have to show my ID to claim my winnings. Also nice Oaks race this year and great card this year. Good racing luck to all.
mikey More than 1 year ago
What has changed is that we have been breeding cookie cutter 9 furlong horses....that is why we get a hugh field is because we do not breed the Spectacular Bids or Secretariat anymore....heck we do no breed an Alysheba anymore...nobody is scared of any horse anymore because none of them are bred to be that good....they are all basically the same horse....
trytrytryx3 More than 1 year ago
i like all the extra info as it seems many more overlays now on Derby day then in the past..
superdog More than 1 year ago
Steve Crist is usually spot on with his selections. Than you Steve for being a true professional. Alpha,Gemologist,Take Charge Indy,and Dullahan.
Thomas Nicholson More than 1 year ago
Bodemeister will have to be a special horse to win the Derby off his last race. It was a great performance in every respect. If your betting him to win the Derby you are betting he won't bounce. If he wins off his last race, look out racing world, you will see Triple Crown fever. It would be great for racing and we are certainly due to have another Big Red, Slew, or Smarty Jones ( the jockey cost him the crown) . But as a better I have to bet him to bounce as I would any other horse after such a performance, that s where the money is, throwing him out. Try counting that superfecta box. If he wins, well if he wins then he will spark TRIPLE CROWN FEVER!!!!! and rightfully so!!! Would be great for horse racing!!
Robin Dawson More than 1 year ago
Steve, you make many good observations. As you know, though...sometimes, in racing, you can know too much! Even so, I notice that you are still sitting on the fence and apparently, despite all of your insights, have not committed yourself yet. That having been said, my formula for picking the winner is to focus on key races and serious trainers. And even then you can get blind-sided by an off-track or bad post position. For what its worth: the two key races are the Florida Derby and the Wood Memorial. So, respecting Pat Byrne and Michael Matz, as 'real' trainers who would not run in the Kentucky Derby simply for the sake of being there, I like Take Charge Indy and Union Rags (who have two top jockeys at Churchill Downs), with last year's Team Valor/Motion entry my outsider.
Helen Ivory More than 1 year ago
It's hard to have a Better time than at the Kentucky Derby "Run for the Roses"
Ray Sousa More than 1 year ago
in derbys with lots of pace generaly horses are spread out enough that theres enough space,the reason horses in the states frequently get bad trips is because our jockeys are not afraid to ride each other and cut each other off illegaly knowing full well that the suspensions are a joke,you see big races overseas with 25 horses in a race and very little interference,our jocks manage to check their horse in a 3 horse field,maybe its their lack of quality,then again dishwashers from mexico show up in california and become champion jockeys,and every peruvian,brasilian,panamanian,puerto rican,venezuelan who can sit on a horse becomes the top jock at one of our tracks.
st More than 1 year ago
Can you race bait anymore than that post, Ray?
Rob Scheffler More than 1 year ago
You're a class act Ray! Hope I never have to sit next to a moron like you at my next outing to the track.