Early Thoughts on Kentucky Derby 139

Handicapper Art ParkerBy ART PARKER

If it were not for the obligation to write about the Kentucky Derby, I probably would not be considering the race this far in advance (today is April 23, 2013). I do my best, as I have previously written, to avoid concentration on a race so far away. Oh sure, I always buy a few tickets in the future pools mainly for sport but never invest time into the practice. I guess it’s about time to take a look at Derby 139, and without making a specific selection, which would be truly foolish, let’s see what the future holds for the first Saturday in May. I must say this year’s field looks to be one of the better I’ve seen and the race, based upon my limited research, seems to be abnormally competitive compared to the many, many Derbies that have flashed before my rapidly aging eyes.   

Before I go further please note that the final Derby field is yet to be determined. Some horses mentioned here may not make it to the post position draw. For purposes of today’s discussion, I have looked at the current top 25 in the Derby point standings. 

Nothing is a replacement of sound historical data, especially when one is considering making an investment, be it real estate, the shares of a corporation, or a pari-mutuel wager on a thoroughbred. Of the many considerations when analyzing the Derby in search of a winner is to investigate where winners come from. For that answer we look to the Derby prep season, which reminds me a presidential campaign. First there are primaries and eventually a convention. The deal with the Derby is similar; we have prep races and then we have a race at a big venue called Churchill Downs. In the presidential primaries so much is made of winning certain primaries because of the number of delegates available. The same is true of the Derby preps especially since points have been awarded to the highest ranking finishers, and the points mean you get more delegates that can get you to the big dance at Churchill Downs. Without getting into the specifics of the point system, let’s just look at the most important piece of pre-Derby history.

In the last several decades over 80% of the Derby winners finished either first or second in one of the following major prep races: Florida Derby, Wood Memorial, Spiral Stakes, Arkansas Derby, Louisiana Derby, Santa Anita Derby or the Blue Grass. There are a couple of reasons for this. First, most of these races serve as the last “big prep” before the Derby and almost all serious contenders will run in one of these, plus the purses of these races are very appealing. Secondly, the cream of the crop shows up at these races, which are generally held four to five weeks before the Derby making these races the best indicator of current form.

Here are the winners and second place finishers in the critical prep races in 2013:

Florida Derby: Orb (Winner) Itsmyluckyday (second)

Wood Memorial: Verrazano (Winner) Normandy Invasion (Second)

Spiral: Black Onyx (Winner) Uncaptured (Second, but taken off the Derby Trail)

Arkansas Derby: Overanalyze (Winner)  Frac Daddy (Second)

Louisiana Derby: Revolutionary (Winner) Mylute (Second)

Santa Anita Derby:  Goldencents (Winner) Flashback (Second, but taken off the Derby Trail)

Blue Grass: Java’s War (Winner) Palace Malice (Second)

A total of 14 different horses finished first or second in these preps but only a dozen are on track to run in Louisville since Uncaptured and Flashback have changed their plans. A dozen of the twenty 20 runners that can leave the gate hold a major historical advantage over the balance of the field. If you want to look in the direction of high probability when selecting a Derby winner then I can’t think of a better place than those that ran first or second in these select races.

Now to a “bunch of thoughts”…

For those of you that still pay attention to the “Dosage Index” it looks like all but one horse qualified as a Derby winner, which means a Dosage Index of 4.00 or less. The only horse that does not qualify is Super Ninety Nine with a DI of 4.09. Revolutionary has points in all five classifications; Brilliant, Intermediate, Classic, Solid and Professional, which is a big plus. Winning Cause has 29 points in the Classic category, the only horse with more than 20 in that important dosage category.

Continuing on the dosage conversation it is appropriate to mention the old rule of thumb. That is to be a Derby winner a horse must qualify with a DI of 4.00 or less AND be assigned within 10 points on the Experimental Free Handicap (EFH) as a two year old. To have a qualifying DI and a qualifying assignment on the EFH makes a horse a Dual Qualifier (DQ). Last year’s two year old champ, Shanghai Bobby (he is off the Derby trail), was the high weight on the EFH with 126 pounds. Only three runners on track to be in Louisville are Dual Qualifiers: Overanalyze (120 pounds), Frac Daddy (118 Pounds) and Normandy Invasion (118). It is interesting to note that all three of those qualify as a Derby contender with a win or second in the big Derby preps. Also, Overanalyze and Frac Daddy ran one-two in the Arkansas Derby.

On the subject of breeding we can only find two horses that have a sire that has previously produced the winner of a Triple Crown race. I did find that a bit strange since we have an impressive list of sires for the prospective Derby field. Overanalyze (that name keeps popping up) was sired by Dixie Union, who sired last year’s Belmont winner Union Rags. And Den’s Legacy, who is on the bubble on the points list, was sired by Medaglia ‘d Oro, the sire of the great Rachel Alexandra, the remarkable filly that whipped the boys in the Preakness in 2009.

The Florida Derby has as much impact on the Kentucky Derby scene as any other prep race. The winner of 2013 Florida Derby is Orb, who could be the favorite in the Derby this year. Orb is trained by Shug McGaughey, one of the best ever, and is owned by one of racing’s big name families, the Janneys. John Velasquez rode Orb in his last two wins, the last being the Florida Derby but jumped ship to ride Verrazano for trainer Todd Pletcher. That may seem to be a negative, but Shug just named Joel Rosario as Orb’s new pilot. Now, that could be a plus since Rosario is the hottest rider on the planet. But what is not hot about Orb is the Florida Derby race time. The following were the fractions and final time for the 9 furlong Florida Derby that was sent off at 5:43 in the afternoon:

24.24  48.56  1:12.89  1:37.79  1:50.87

The Gulfstream Oaks, which was won easily by Dreaming of Julia, was sent off at 4:01 the same beautiful afternoon. Here are the fractions and final time for the 9 furlong Oaks:

23.43  47.18  1:11.16  1:36.12  1:48.97

To add more believability to the Oaks, a filly name Emollient ran fifth at Gulfstream and then went to Keeneland for the Grade One Ashland. Emollient embarrassed the field in the Ashland taking the race coast to coast from post 13 in a super impressive performance.

Now this could mean that Dreaming of Julia is a super filly and should easily win the Kentucky Oaks, or, it means that Orb beat nothing and was damn slow about it to boot. The horse that ran second to Orb in the Florida Derby is Itsmyluckyday, a colt that many people still like.

Goldencents defeated all foes in the Santa Anita Derby. Only one other horse may get to the Kentucky Derby post that was part of the Santa Anita field and that is Super Ninety Nine, who is extremely suspect as a Derby contender. Trained by the Derby winning conditioner of 2012 Doug O’Neill, Goldencents is owned in part by Rick Pitino, the University of Louisville basketball coach that seized a national championship this year. Goldencents figures to be part of the early pace in the big dance in Louisville. Also from the west is Govenor Charlie trained by Bob Baffert, and may be the only horse Baffert has in Louisville. Govenor Charlie (which appears to be misspelled but isn’t) garnered enough Derby points by winning the Sunland Derby on the New Mexico side of El Paso. I’m not impressed with that, but I’m going to pass on making any judgment. After all, Mine That Bird couldn’t even win that race and then vanned to Louisville to win the Derby in 2009 (may that never happen again).     

Up in New York Vyjack won the Gotham Stakes at Aqueduct. Overanalyze was in that field and he came back to win the Arkansas Derby with Frac Daddy running second. The Gotham was the first race as a 3 year old for Overanalyze and he obviously needed the race. As a two year old the only races he lost were to the champ Shanghi Bobby and Uncaptured the top 2 Year Old in Canada, who also won twice at Churchill in the fall. Vyjack did not run well in the Wood Memorial being defeated by Verrazano. But it turned out that Vyjack had some sort of an infection on Gotham Day and has been resting and recovery nicely. Don’t know where that leaves Vyjack, who looks to be a closing sprinter or miler to me. In the Wood Memorial Verrazano established himself as either the Derby favorite or second choice. He has tactical speed and has shown courage under fire. He is Todd Pletcher’s biggest gun in the holster and Pletcher’s top rider, Johnny Velasquez, has decided to take the big dark horse on Derby Day. The horse that ran second in the Wood with a good closing effort is Normandy Invasion. He has yet to win a graded stakes, which is a big negative from a handicapping point of view, but he did finish second by a nose to Overanalyze in last year’s Remsem Stakes. Since Vyjack was ill and Normandy Invasion has yet to win a graded stakes the question must be asked, “Who has Verrazano beat?” The only other horse to note is Java’s Gold, who beat a weak Blue Grass field after Verrazano whipped him in the Tampa Bay Derby.

The Arkansas Derby may produce as many as four Kentucky Derby runners: Overanalyze, Oxbow, Falling Sky and Frac Daddy. But before the Arkansas Derby there was the Rebel Stakes at Oaklawn Park. Ever hear of D. Wayne Lukas? Lukas’ Will Take Charge won the Rebel by narrowly defeating stablemate Oxbow, a horse that is also participating in the Derby dance. The Rebel may produce a couple of Derby runners in Will Take Charge and Oxbow. For some reason or another Lukas decided to train Will Take Charge up to the Derby instead of finding a race for him the last couple of months before the Derby. It makes Will Take Charge harder to read, but it is hard to argue with a man that has a career better than just about anyone else in the business. The Arkansas Derby made us aware of Overanalyze once again. But the race also rejuvenated Frac Daddy and made it apparent that he simply didn’t like Gulfstream Park in his first pair of 2013 races. The other thing the Arkansas Derby did was expose Oxbow to another running style. The talented Lukas trainee will show up in Louisville with good breeding and a ton of experiences. A review of the Rebel Stakes, the Arkansas Derby and the action in New Orleans may prove to be beneficial in selecting a Derby horse.

Way down south where the food is divine and the people talk funny, the legend of Revolutionary continues to grow. The beautifully bred son of War Pass won the Louisiana Derby after another eventful trip, just not as adventurous as he had in New York when he won the Withers Stakes. Revolutionary may be a strong force to deal with in Louisville, but his future looks brighter even beyond that destination. This is a colt that is obviously maturing fast and has as much potential or more than anyone in the Derby field. The Louisiana Derby could produce five Derby runners:  Revolutionary, Code West, Palace Malice, Mylute and Golden Soul.

In Kentucky we first look at Turfway Park and Spiral Stakes winner Black Onyx. The only horse in that race with big credentials was Uncaptured, who has now left the Derby trail after a pair of disappointing races in 2013. The rest of the Spiral field was, and remains, virtually unheard of. Black Onyx may turn out to be a longshot winner like Giacomo or Mine That Bird in the Derby, but as for now there doesn’t seem to be reason to look his way again.

Java’s War ridden by Julien Leparoux, won the Blue Grass after walking out of the starting gate and then running down the field late for the big prize at Keeneland. Palace Malice and Charming Kitten may exit the Blue Grass and make it to the Derby, but a close analysis of the Blue Grass field does not support the notion that Java’s War is a Derby winner. In the Lexington Stakes last weekend, Winning Cause, also ridden Leparoux, showed he is a late bloomer for trainer Todd Pletcher. He may not make it to the Derby but if I was Pletcher I would have my sights set on the Belmont with Winning Cause. He is bred to run all day long without breathing hard.

Plenty of time remains before the gates open on May 4. There could be an injury and someone will make a change of plans. The final Derby field will not be determined until the draw is complete. Many things must be considered. I don’t have firm recommendations now and may never develop a strong conviction about Derby 139. I do hope that this exercise will stimulate your imagination and/or provide you with information you did not have. Whatever road you take to the Derby, I hope it is a profitable one. Good luck!    

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About Editor

Rich Nilsen is an 18-time qualifier to the National Horseplayers Championship (NHC), an event he has cashed in four times. He was the first player to finish in the top 10 of the NHC twice. A former executive with Brisnet.com and a member of the NHC Players’ Committee, Rich is a graduate of the University of Louisville Equine Business Program and is founder of AGameofSkill.com, a site devoted to horse racing education and promotion.

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