03/11/2016 1:10PM

Simon: Dosage, dual qualifiers, and the Derby


Picking a Kentucky Derby winner is sometimes as much about bragging rights as it is about winning money. People spend all winter trying to figure out which horse is going to win the race, and handicappers employ a number of different approaches – looking at the major preps, trainers, historical angles, pace scenarios, post position, pedigree, owners, jockeys, or any combination of factors.

One system that seemed to work – at least for a few years – and gained plenty of followers was the dual-qualifier theory, advanced by the late, esteemed Daily Racing Form columnist Leon Rasmussen with Steven Roman, a pedigree enthusiast who classified sires by distance aptitudes. The theory was based on the Experimental Free Handicap for juveniles of the previous year in conjunction with the Dosage Index, a numerical evaluation of the distance aptitude of a given runner based on influential sires in the first four generations of the horse’s pedigree.

With the dual-qualifier theory, a horse must have been ranked within 10 pounds of the highweight on the Experimental and possess a DI of less than 4.00 (lower is better, indicating stamina; a higher number indicates a propensity for speed). In short, it looked for horses that had been good at 2 and had stamina influences in their pedigrees to suggest they could to stay the 1 1/4 miles of the Derby in the spring of their sophomore season.

Dosage looked strictly at sires, with Roman classifying only those that had achieved “chefs-de-race” (chiefs of the breed) status as either Brilliant, Intermediate, Classic, Solid/Stout, or Professional. Brilliant were the sprint influences, Classic the 1 1/4-mile types, and Solid and Professional were those who got horses that wanted to run 1 1/2 miles or farther.

Dosage theory was founded around 1902 by a French cavalier officer and pedigree adviser named Lt. Col. Jean-Joseph Vuillier, and later made famous by noted European bloodstock writer and breeder Franco Varola, who modified the system. Roman in turn tweaked Varola’s system further when maintaining the Dosage theory in this country. (Pedigrees presented in The Jockey Club’s Equineline system present statistics using the Roman chef-de-race system.)

The theory became popular as a Derby handicapping tool before the 1981 renewal when Roman noted that the Kentucky Derby had never produced a winner with a Dosage Index higher than 4.00. Rasmussen picked up on that and coupled it with the Experimental. The dual-qualifier theory was good for that era because 2-year-old form back then consistently translated into 3-year-old form.

From 1972 to 1980, for example, every single winner of the Kentucky Derby was a dual qualifier by the rules of Roman and Rasmussen, with six champion juveniles in the 1970s training on to win the roses.

Note that this was before the advent of Breeders’ Cup, an event that has pushed back the end of the racing year for the best juveniles. This means that many leading 2-year-olds of today do not receive much of a break between their juvenile and sophomore seasons – thus denying them beneficial rest before launching a demanding spring campaign.

It’s no coincidence that only one Breeders’ Cup Juvenile winner, Street Sense, has won the Kentucky Derby, and just two juvenile champions since 1979 have captured the Louisville classic – Street Sense and American Pharaoh. When American Pharoah was injured and had to miss the 2014 Breeders’ Cup, it may have been for the best.

In any event, with such powerful evidence from the 1970s readily apparent, in 1981 the theory went public.

The dual-qualifier theory promptly produced a string of Derby winners, interrupted only by Sunny’s Halo in 1983: Pleasant Colony ($9 to win), Gato Del Sol ($44.40), Swale ($8.80), Spend a Buck ($10.20), Ferdinand ($37.40), and Alysheba ($18.80). Sunny’s Halo was said to have “qualified” because he had been a champion juvenile in Canada, even though he was rated at a mere 108 on the Experimental.

Of course, each year there was more than one starter who fit the dual qualifier profile – anywhere from two to five – so a handicapper following the system still had to separate qualifiers.

The theory went off the rails when the filly Winning Colors won in 1988 and Sunday Silence in 1989, neither being a dual qualifier, though dual qualifier Unbridled ($23.60) temporarily righted the ship in 1990. Up to that point, no Derby winner had won with a Dosage above 4.00. But in 1991 Strike the Gold, with a sky-high 9.00 DI, blasted a hole in the theory by winning without having qualified by either Experimental ranking or Dosage. (Strike the Gold’s pedigree was later adjusted and he now qualifies by Dosage.)

Since then, a number of horses have won the Derby with a Dosage above 4.00, including Real Quiet, Charismatic, and Giacomo, and in 2009 the only Derby starter who did not qualify on Dosage was the winner, Mine That Bird.

Following dual qualifier Silver Charm’s 1997 Derby triumph, the theory has pretty much failed to predict success and has fallen out of favor. From 1998 through 2015, only two dual qualifiers – Street Sense and Super Saver – have won the Derby.

Last year, American Pharoah was not a dual qualifier as his Dosage is 4.33 (wait, I’m sure it will be adjusted), even though he is a paternal grandson of Empire Maker, one of the best sources of stamina in American pedigrees today.

For this year’s Derby – if you’re still interested in the dual-qualifier theory – of the top 12 horses rated on the 2015 Experimental for colts and geldings, only two are non-dosage qualifiers: Nyquist and Riker.

Nyquist, by record-setting juvenile and freshman sire Uncle Mo, has a Dosage of 7.00, with Riker at 4.20. Airoforce, who was taken off the Triple Crown trail to focus on turf, has a 4.00 DI. Here are Dosage indices of the nine dual qualifiers: Swipe, 3.57; Brody’s Cause, 1.38; Hit a Bomb, 1.43; Greenpointcrusader, 2.71; Birchwood, 3.00; Exaggerator, 3.40; Mohaymen, 3.00; Mor Spirit, 1.57; and Cocked and Loaded, 2.33.

The Dosage of Nyquist is high, but if you believe in Uncle Mo as a top-class sire, it should not be problem. For what it’s worth, Uncle Mo, even though he is by sprint influence Indian Charlie, has a Dosage of 2.20.

Nyquist has been knocked at every turn – his Beyer Speed Figures are not high; he barely wins his races – but if you like the undefeated juvenile champion for the Derby, don’t let the dual-qualifier theory dissuade you. The fact that he’s a non-qualifier would seem to be in his favor the way that theory has played out lately.