04/20/2008 11:00PM

Kentucky Derby lessons

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The Kentucky Derby is not only the most important race of the year for every horse breeder, owner, trainer, and jockey, it is one of the best races for horseplayers to make a good score and to learn more about every aspect of handicapping.

Trip handicappers can sharpen their skills on numerous prep races leading into the Derby. Likewise, the oversized Derby field will provide many more clues about which horses really ran better or worse than their raw finishing positions.

Those trying to get a handle on how trainers get good young horses to develop into Derby contenders - as well as why some trainers fail in that attempt - can learn a lot when the glare of the Derby spotlight exposes positive and negative strategic moves. If you have doubts about that, just go back and look at Carl Nafzger's pre-Derby work with Street Sense last year and Todd Pletcher's handling of numerous prep race stakes winners that have yet to produce a Derby victory in 19 attempts.

Those trying to measure the effectiveness of changes Pletcher has implemented this year certainly should watch Monba in the 2008 Derby. Monba is the first late-developing Derby horse of Pletcher's career.

Similarly, Hall of Fame trainer Bill Mott has had no real success in the Kentucky Derby, yet his relatively slow developing Court Vision seemed extra sharp for the first time this year working with blinkers last week after moderate stretch-running efforts in the Fountain of Youth and Wood Memorial. While Court Vision and Monba will need a hot pace to threaten probable favorite Big Brown, both have something else in common: They won races at Churchill Downs last fall.

Some expert speed-figure handicappers have publicly regretted not betting on top-figure War Emblem at 20-1 in the 2002 Kentucky Derby, but there were reasons for their reticence. Numerous examples can be cited when top speed-figure horses have been trumped in the Kentucky Derby by a strength sapping early pace and/or an emerging, rapidly developing horse who hinted at superior class for the 10-furlong distance.

Two recent examples include the absurdly irrelevant 116 Beyer Speed Figure earned by Sinister Minister in the 2006 Blue Grass Stakes prior to Barbaro's effortless Kentucky Derby victory, and Bellamy Road's equally irrelevant 120 Beyer earned in the 2005 Wood Memorial prior to his meltdown (with other speed types) that contributed to Giacomo's stretch-running Derby upset.

Pace handicappers have found satisfaction in those outcomes among others tracing all the way back to stretch-running wins by Carry Back in 1961. More recently, Monarchos's winning rally in 2001 was linked to the hot pace that took its toll on all the horses near that pace, including heavily favored Point Given, who never would lose another race.

Front-running Spend a Buck may have been aided by the slow start endured by speedy Wood Memorial winner Eternal Prince, but Spend a Buck was a terrific horse who simply outran the entire Derby field in 1985 even more impressively than Winning Colors's front-running score over Forty Niner and Risen Star in 1988.

The size of the Derby field has led many handicappers to discount the outside post positions, but that is probably a mistake, given the success of Thunder Gulch, who won from post 16 of 19 in 1995; Grindstone, post 15 of 19 in 1996; Charismatic, post 16 of 19 in 1999; Fusaichi Pegasus, post 15 of 19 in 2000; and Monarchos, post 16 of 17 in 2001. Moreover, there have been several second- and third-place finishers from outer posts in the past decade.

Conversely, horses forced to break from either of the inside two post positions have done poorly in 15- to 20-horse Derby fields, with only one winner from the rail (Ferdinand in 1986) and one place horse from post 2 (Aptitude in 2000) in more than two decades.

For my own Derby adventures, the world's most famous race has marked a few of my biggest single-race scores in more than 40 years of betting and a few of the worst plays I have ever made.

The two best focused on trifectas and superfectas led by Derby standouts Fusaichi Pegasus and Barbaro in this decade, while the Strike the Gold-Best Pal exacta in 1991 (at $73.40 for $2) and the Silver Charm-Captain Bodgit-Free House trifecta (at $205.40) in 1997 also were pretty straightforward and quite lucrative.

All of these plays and a few others scattered through the years have had this much in common: The key horses were legit Grade 1 performers who came into the 10-furlong Derby after good efforts in final prep races against quality opponents and subsequent superb training drills during the final 10 days leading up to the race.

None had to cope with any lingering physical issues or were likely to be trapped into a negative pace scenario.

On the other hand, a few of my worst plays still trouble me even though I learned far more valuable lessons from their defeats than from any victory.

Discounting 17-1 Ferdinand in 1986 despite a series of fantastic Churchill Downs workouts that I saw and clocked myself was a horrendous error, given that Hall of Famer Charlie Whittingham was orchestrating a perfect game plan. My problem, such as it was, was to believe erroneously that the aging Bill Shoemaker was no longer capable of delivering a top ride from the tricky inside post. That bad opinion was turned upside down when Shoemaker produced the single greatest ride I have ever seen in that Derby. (It is available for viewing on YouTube and at the Kentucky Derby Museum at Churchill Downs.)

Another big mistake was to disregard the seemingly minor hoof problems that hampered Unbridled's Song in 1996 and Empire Maker in 2003, problems that condemned both horses to merely run well, without permitting them to run their best in the worlds' most difficult race. Failing to take those injuries into proper account led me away from logical winners and cost me six figures in potential multi-race exotic plays.

At the bottom line, I have come to realize that any play in any Derby has to include a price reward for the complexity of picking the winner and having that horse navigate through an oversized field under conditions none previously has faced.

For this Derby, will you take 5-2 on the freakishly talented Big Brown whose chances have been improved by the unfortunate defection of the very fast War Pass?

If you strongly believe that Big Brown is close to an even-money proposition to win the race, you probably should. But even if you think Big Brown is the one to beat, and 5-2 seems to represent his real odds, you should insist upon a price edge.

I also have come to realize that it is a bad mistake to settle on a firm pick before the final field is known, before post positions are drawn, and before the overall pace of the race can be mapped out. At the same time, trying to stretch your view of the race to accent marginal longshots for a win play, usually is a prescription for a stack of losing tickets.

Contrary to the prevailing view, the Derby is a formful race usually won by a legit Grade 1 horse in peak condition, a horse that will look a whole lot more logical to the vast majority of Derby bettors after the results are declared official. With about one week to go, I am still deciding among Big Brown, Colonel John, and Court Vision, while expecting Z Fortune, Gayego, Smooth Air, and Monba to be on my superfecta tickets.