By Andrew Beyer
Monday, May 4, 2009
After Mine That Bird won the Kentucky Derby, all reports of the race noted the 50-to-1 payoff was the second highest in the race's history. Even so, most casual fans probably did not appreciate the magnitude of this incomprehensible upset.
Because many people blindly bet on long shots in the Derby, even hopeless horses rarely go off at odds as high as 50 to 1. Mine That Bird deserved to be 200 to 1. (Indeed, customers of Betfair, the international gambling Web site, could have fetched odds of 220 to 1 in midweek. When wagering closed, the gelding was 139 to 1.) This was one of the biggest upsets in the history of American racing. In my four decades of covering the sport, it ranks as one of the two most mystifying results in a major stakes race, along with Canonero II's victory in the 1971 Derby.
For devotees of speed figures -- which usually have been a reliable gauge of Derby horses -- this result was especially hard to explain. Since the publication of the Beyer Speed Figures, the weakest horse to win the Derby was Giacomo, who had never earned a figure higher than 98 before he scored his 50-to-1 upset in 2005. Yet Giacomo looked like a superhorse compared to Mine That Bird, whose best lifetime figure was the 81 he recorded while losing an obscure stakes race in New Mexico. His figure of 105 in the Derby represented a 17-length improvement. How did it happen? I put that question yesterday to a few of the people whose opinions I respect the most: professional handicappers Maury Wolff and Paul Cornman; New York Racing Association TV analyst Andy Serling; and ESPN commentator Randy Moss. With their help, I have tried to fashion an explanation for Saturday's events.
It's not a simple explanation, but as Moss said, "What happened was a perfect storm of situations that added up to give you a wacky result."
These were the elements of the perfect storm:
-- The Derby field was weak and the best horses delivered poor performances on the sloppy track.
-- Racing on or near the rail was an advantage at Churchill Downs on Saturday, and jockey Calvin Borel took advantage of the conditions by keeping Mine That Bird on the rail.
-- Mine That Bird obviously relished the sloppy track, and he evidently possessed more talent than his past performances indicated.
The two outstanding members of the 3-year-old crop, I Want Revenge and Quality Road, had been knocked out of the Derby by injuries; I Want Revenge was scratched on the morning of the race. In their absence, nobody possessed rock-solid credentials.
Even in a normal year, few horses deliver peak performances in the Derby -- it's an extraordinarily difficult and stressful race. Over a sloppy track, even fewer horses fire their best shots. On Saturday, Friesan Fire, the favorite, barely picked up his feet and lost by more than 40 lengths. Dunkirk, the second choice, lost by more than 20. Almost nobody besides the winner ran well. If Mine That Bird hadn't been in the field, the winning speed figure for the Derby would have been 95 -- by far the lowest ever for a Triple Crown event.
Besides having trouble with the sloppy track, many of the horses in the Derby were compromised by the bias of the Churchill racing strip. Most of the winners Saturday spent all or part of their journeys near the rail, and nobody won by circling the field. This was no secret: ESPN's commentators were talking about the bias all afternoon and asking jockeys about it. But few of the riders in the Derby tried to take advantage of the rail, except for Borel, whose propensities have earned him the nickname "Bo-Rail." His performance was almost a duplicate of his rail-skipping ride aboard Street Sense in the 2007 Derby. Wolff observed: "With any other rider, Mine That Bird doesn't get that trip."
The bias wasn't so strong that it was propelling bad horses to victory. There hadn't been any absurd results on the Churchill card before the Derby. In the Derby, jockey Kent Desormeaux also stayed on the rail with his mount, Hold Me Back, and he made a strong move on the turn before his mount faltered badly. So the winner needed some talent to take advantage of his ground-saving trip.
Presumably Mine That Bird improved because he relished the sloppy track -- something no handicapper could have anticipated before the race. But the gelding may have also been a better horse than he looked on paper. After the Derby, I reviewed the films of his previous races. In both of his starts this spring at New Mexico's Sunland Park, his jockey had made ill-judged, premature moves to vie for the lead. In both races he fought tenaciously before he faded in the stretch. I would imagine some handicappers in New Mexico were eagerly waiting to bet him the next time he ran. However, no rational handicapper could have considered these trips a harbinger of a victory in the Kentucky Derby.
Mine That Bird's win will be popularly regarded as the result of a once-in-a-lifetime perfect storm. Probably this opinion is correct; probably the gelding will never win another major race. However, I can remember that the other utterly implausible Derby winner, Canonero II, was regarded the same way. Two weeks later he won the Preakness and forced all of the doubters to revise their opinion that the Derby was a fluke.