Updated on 05/05/2012 12:23PM

Steven Crist answers your Kentucky Derby handicapping questions


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 answer page to tackle on DRF.com Monday through Friday.

Thursday, May 3

Question from superplayr via email: Steve, Do your Derby picks [get] influenced by whether you've had success with those horses in other races? Do you stay loyal to previous picks or is it really a clean slate for you?

Answer: It's only human to feel some loyalty to horses you've liked and done well with in the past, but it's probably best to try to screen that out in your Derby handicapping.

Example: The only prep race where I made a little score this spring was the Illinois Derby. I was against the favorites (Currency Swap at 5-2 and Our Entourage at 4-1), and thought Done Talking was an interesting alternative at 12-1 -- second off a layoff with a close fourth in the Remsen (beaten just a length) in his 2-year-old finale, and switching to a patient rider in a race that might fall apart in the final furlong.

It took him the length of the stretch to get up, but he finally got there at a lovely $27.20. I cannot, however, endorse him at even 50-1 in the Kentucky Derby. He barely got by clearly inferior horses in Illinois, and would have to improve sharply just to get a minor award in the main event. I will have no trouble drawing a big X through him on Derby Day.

On the other hand, I probably do approach the Derby a little differently from an everyday race in that I tend to pick and root for a horse that I hope turns out to be a really good one, not just the undistinguished winner of a chaotic event who gets there first because the race melts down or something goes awry with better horses. So I probably gravitate toward horses who have run a really big race at some point rather than one I simply think will outrun his odds and has a chance if the race falls apart. I want the Derby winner to run a huge race and prove himself clearly the best. I think even the most cold-blooded handicapper can't help being a little more of a sports fan than usual when it comes to the Derby.

Wedneday, May 2

Question from Jose Ocon on Facebook: Hi Steve, sometimes when I handicap a race and I find a group that has raced together, like the Juvenile Breeders' Cup, I try to beat the entire group especially if we have favorites in it. It works some times and I am evaluating Gemologist & Bodemeister (maybe somebody else later based on draw and more analysis), is it possible that a better horse was not in the BC Juvenile group? What do you think about this way to see the race?

Answer: Having an opinion about which region had the stronger or weaker series of prep races is always an underlying question in handicapping the Kentucky Derby. If you can correctly isolate one race as being clearly the strongest – say, the Empire Maker-Funny Cide Wood Memorial of 2003, after which they came back to run second and first in the Derby – you can cut through the clutter of the field and focus on two key horses. Conversely, if you think an entire group was a weak one, you might eliminate them as a batch.

There’s never been a situation quite like the one we have this year with so many horses who ran in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile having come back to win graded stakes as 3-year-olds and making it all the way to the entry box for the Derby six months later. It looks like nine horses from that race will make it back, including the first five finishers -- Hansen (Gotham), Union Rags (Fountain of Youth), Creative Cause (San Felipe), Dullahan (Blue Grass), and Take Charge Indy (Florida Derby). They’ll be joined in the Derby starting gate by four others who finished farther back: Optimizer (9th) and the last three finishers – Alpha (11th, won Withers), Daddy Long Legs (12th, won UAE Derby), and Prospective (13th, won Tampa Bay Derby).

That’s a truly extraordinary record we might not see again for decades, and obviously speaks well for the quality of the group that assembled at Churchill Downs six months ago. But here’s the rub: The Juvenile itself, by usual Breeders’ Cup and 2-year-old championship standards, was just not a particularly fast race or a visually impressive one. The race earned a very ordinary Beyer Speed Figure of 94, only the 15th best of the previous 20 BC Juveniles. I also don’t recall anyone saying after the race, "Damn the timer, this was an unusually strong and classy group of 2-year-olds."

Do the subsequent successes of so many from the field suggest that the race was a lot better than it first looked, or have many of those who didn’t run particularly well six months ago now improved? My own feeling is that you can’t endorse or dismiss them as a group, handy as that might be, but have to look at them individually while considering that young horses change dramatically over the course of six months and that there’s a huge difference between 8 1/2 furlongs in November and 10 furlongs six months later.

For example: Should Hansen be given extra credit because he won a race over eight subsequent graded-stakes winners? I say no, not to diminish his achievement but because he just doesn’t seem to have made any progress since then, and the Derby distance remains a huge question for him. Union Rags poses an especially tricky read: Everyone expects him to deliver a career-best performance on Saturday after not being fully cranked up for his two preps and running against the grain of the track and the race shape in the Florida Derby, but he has yet to take that step.

It would be an interesting prop if someone offered a bet where you could take either the nine Derby entrants who ran in the BC Juvenile or the rest of the field. What would be the right price for that proposition?

Tuesday, May 1

Question from commenter KWGRID on Yahoo: Is there a way to anticipate a longshot KD winner like Mine That Bird was? I've often wondered if owners/trainers keep the true capabilities of their horses 'under wraps,' so to speak to increase the odds.

Answer: It’s always a good instinct for a horseplayer to go back after a race and question whether he failed to come up with the winner because he overlooked or misinterpreted something during the handicapping process. Having said that, I disagree with the idea that every race is a solveable puzzle where you did something wrong if you didn’t come up with the correct solution. Mine That Bird’s 2009 Derby victory is a perfect case in point.

Sure, you can say a few nice things about him in retrospect that few if any people were saying before the race – he did win a graded stakes in Canada as a 2-year-old, he was too close to a fast pace in the Sunland Derby, and it doesn’t hurt to have Calvin Borel ride any Derby horse given his experience with the track. Having said all that, I don’t think it amounts to a case that he had a particularly good chance of winning the race, or that handicappers were wrong to let him go off at 50-1.

I applaud anyone who threw him into the parimutuel mix, and I can buy the argument that the 2009 Derby may have been a good spot to try to be highly contrarian and imaginative – the favorites were shaky, the prep season had been chaotic, and then the track came up muddy and tiring and the race set up well for a from-the-clouds stretch-runner.

I also can’t buy into the theory that his victory was some kind of perfectly staged betting coup and that his connections had been deliberately darkening his form. I believed them when they said that while they thought more highly of him than most people did, they were hoping to have some fun and maybe get a minor piece of the purse.

Horseplayers can learn from some of their "mistakes," but sometimes the correct response is a shrug of the shoulders -- and on to the next race.

Monday, April 30

Question from Peter J. Borelli via Twitter: Could Trinniberg set a blazing quarter, distance himself from pack, then carve out slower middle fractions & hold strong?

Answer: Trinniberg's somewhat surprising addition to the Derby field last week has set off a lot of discussion about not only his own chances but also what effect he will have on the way the race unfolds. Let's consider those two issues separately.

I don't consider Trinniberg a legitimate threat to win the race. It's hard enough for any front-runner to win the Derby, and the handful of horses that have done so had proven they could carry their speed around two turns and run a fast race at a route -- Spend a Buck (1985 Garden State Stakes), Winning Colors (1988 Santa Anita Derby), and Smarty Jones (2005 Arkansas Derby) had all run big-figure nine-furlong races before the Derby. Trinniberg has not even raced beyond seven furlongs, and there is no indication that he wants to go much farther. I would expect him to sprint to the lead by himself and hit a wall after seven furlongs or a mile.

I don't think I agree with those who think that his presence on the lead will compromise the chances of other horses who are likely to be near the front of the pack. In fact, it can work the other way. Hansen or Bodemeister might actually be able to relax better early stalking from second or third instead of having to commit to being on the lead, and either might take over rather easily at the quarter pole once Trinniberg begins backing up. Those two have extremely patient and pace-sensitive riders in Ramon Dominguez and Mike Smith, and I would be shocked to see either of them send their horses into an early fight with Trinniberg. They can wait and get first run on the rest of the field. There are legitimate doubts about whether Hansen will handle the 10 furlongs and whether Bodemeister has enough racing experience, but I don't think Trinniberg's presence will hurt their chances.