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Kentucky Derby Betting Trends
Trends to Toss
In 2006, there hadn't been a Kentucky Derby winner to enter the race off a layoff of five weeks or more in 50 years. So when trainer Michael Matz intentionally planned for his star runner Barabaro to run in the Derby exactly five weeks after his win in the Florida Derby, there was plenty of ridicule and disbelief from the pundits. The naysayers were quickly silenced, however, when Barbaro opened up in the Churchill Downs stretch on the first Saturday in May, easily dispatching the field by a widening six lengths.
To make an obvious point, the best horse won and the historical trend was rendered laughably irrelevant. Clearly, none of the runners entering the Derby off five weeks of rest during that 50-year span were of Barbaro's caliber. The following year, some doubted Street Sense's credibility as the Derby favorite simply because he had won the Breeders' Cup Juvenile the previous year and no horse with that accomplishment had managed to win the Derby. Again, the best horse won.
Historical trends provide a good bit of trivia, but they are not particularly useful handicapping tools. In 2008 Big Brown won the Derby despite just three previous career starts - something that had not been done since 1915. So, aside from bucking historical trends to win the Kentucky Derby, what do Barbaro, Street Sense and Big Brown all have in common? The answer is profoundly simple. They were more accomplished, better and simply faster than their opposition. Even the most cursory glance at any of the three colt's speed figures before the race would have revealed this fact.
Speed: The Statistic to Consider
In a game full of nuance and variables, there is one immutable truth: fast horses usually beat slow horses. Whether we are handicapping the Kentucky Derby, or a mid-level claiming race, speed figures matter. Beyer Speed Figures, which are exclusive to The Daily Racing Form, are probably the most common and widely-used handicapping instrument, yet bettors still seemingly miss the obvious with regularity. Despite a trend of declining Beyer Speed Figures for Kentucky Derby winners of the last 15 years, no horse has won the race with a figure of less than 100.
While this year's Kentucky Derby contenders may have a case of the slows, let's look at the top performers according to their career-best Beyer Speed Figures:
- Classic Empire (top Beyer of 102 in 2016 BC Juvenile
- Irish War Cray (top Beyer of 101 in Wood Memorial)
- J Boys Echo (top Beyer of 101 in Gotham Stakes)
- Hence (top Beyer of 97 earned in Sunland Park Derby)
- Always Dreaming (top Beyer of 97 earned in Florida Derby)
- Gunnevera (top Beyer of 97 earned in Fountain of Youth Stakes)
Clearly, there's very little separating the top contenders. Classic Empire might get special consideration given that the horse has missed training time this year, just won the Arkansas Derby with a 94 Beyer, and ran a faster figure as a two year-old. He might be sitting on a big race for trainer Mark Casse who also excels with horses making their second start following a 30-60 day layoff, which will describe Classic Empire's circumstances in the Kentucky Derby.
Always Dreaming's Florida Derby can be looked at from conflicting viewpoints. On the positive side, the lightly-raced colt looked powerful stalking a fast pace and powering away from a pretty good field. On the cynical end of things, that effort was a huge step forward for the colt who might suffer a "bounce" or regressive effort in the Kentucky Derby. Then there's his trainer, Todd Pletcher, who has 1 win from 43 Derby starters. While that represents a historical trend that has nothing to do with Always Dreaming, it's worthy to question the trainer's preparation of Derby horses.
Hence might be the runner to take notice of and will be available at a good price despite his credentials. This Steve Asmussen-trained colt didn't raise many eyebrows with his Sunland Derby win, but that race was much better than it appeared. Not only did this handsome son of Street Boss earn a very competitive Beyer, but he also defeated eventual Bluegrass Stakes winner Irap and Arkansas Derby runner-up Conquest Mo Money. In short, his form has been validated. Hence will be making his third start off the layoff which often produces any runner's best effort.
Like Hence, Gunnevera is another classy horse with a late-running style that might be suited for the 10 furlong Kentucky Derby. Gunnevera ran right by Classic Empire in the Holy Bull and soundly defeated Irish War Cry in the Fountain of Youth.
As bettors whittle down their Derby selections, they should consider a multitude of factors, but remember that speed is the purest indicator of talent.
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