The Kentucky Derby is such a unique and complex horse race that it is never easy to pick a winner with genuine confidence. Even in years when great horses such as Secretariat, Seattle Slew and Affirmed have won, the Derby was full of ambiguities beforehand.
I know this all too well, because I failed to pick any of those champions to win. But this year, for once, the Derby prognosis seems absolutely clear-cut. In my 17 years of coming to this race, I have never seen a more obvious standout or a more solid betting opportunity.
Even though Snow Chief is the formidable-looking favorite, even though he has beaten his chief rival Badger Land in all four of their meetings, Badger Land is a cinch Saturday.
This Derby is not only a confrontation between these two talented colts but also a clash of two philosophies of handicapping. To people who evaluate horses according to class, who judge their merits from the who-can-beat-whom standpoint, Snow Chief appears an obvious favorite. He scored a decisive victory over Badger Land in the Florida Derby in March. After he left town, Badger Land went on to win two stakes at Hialeah impressively. To the classifiers, those results simply confirmed what a good horse Snow Chief is.
But those of us who evaluate horses' performances according to time see Snow Chief and Badger Land in a very different light. Trainer Mel Stute had Snow Chief geared for big-money races as early as December, and the colt has run consistently well ever since. But he has maintained roughly the same level of performance all year.
Badger Land, by contrast, fits the mold of many Derby winners who improve sharply in the final weeks before the race. Undistinguished for much of his career, he ran a superb race when he lost to Snow Chief in the Florida Derby. The track at Gulfstream Park that day gave a distinct advantage to front-runners on the rail; Snow Chief popped clear and got to the inside while Badger Land, after breaking from post position 13, chased him from the outside all the way around the track. Badger Land was probably as good as Snow Chief that day, and he continued to show dramatic improvement in his next two starts. He won the Everglades Stakes at Hialeah in a track-record 1:46 1/5 for 1 1/8 miles, and then captured the Flamingo Stakes with a similarly powerful effort.
While Badger Land was dazzling speed handicappers, Snow Chief went back home to run in the Santa Anita Derby in a situation that amounted to a set-up. He was the only horse with early speed in the field, and he was able to take a commanding lead without a semblance of a challenge. When horses get such an optimal situation they often run dazzlingly fast, but Snow Chief's time was merely respectable.
With the aid of three top handicappers around the country -- Randy Moss of Hot Springs, Ark., Mark Hopkins of Albany and Dick Jerardi of Philadelphia -- I have been calculating speed figures for all of the Derby contenders this spring. In our system, two points equal approximately one length, and our final ratings for the horses in the Derby field show what an enormous edge Badger Land has:
Badger Land -- 117
Rampage -- 109
Snow Chief -- 108
Wheatly Hall -- 107
Bachelor Beau -- 107
Bold Arrangement -- 105
Fobby Forbes -- 104
Broad Brush -- 103
Zabaleta -- 103
Mogambo -- 102
Groovy -- 102
Icy Groom -- 102
Vernon Castle -- 101
Wise Times -- 100
Ferdinand -- 96
Southern Appeal -- 86
Badger Land's last two performances are a solid four or five lengths better than any race Snow Chief has ever run -- or any other Derby horse has run, for that matter. (Mogambo did score a very fast victory when he won the Gotham Stakes at Aqueduct, but subsequent evidence suggests that the time was an aberrant; a sudden rainstorm before the race had made the track unusually fast). Whether it arises in the Kentucky Derby or an ordinary weekday race at Pimlico, the opportunity to get 5-to-2 odds on a horse so superior is an attractive proposition.
With exacta betting, the Derby could offer a chance to make a windfall profit. Even though Snow Chief has many admirable qualities -- he is versatile, tractable and consistent, a true professional -- the figures indicate he doesn't have any edge over the rest of the Derby field. A successful exacta combining Badger Land and anybody but Snow Chief will pay a giant price.
To be a factor, a horse will need the ability to finish well (because the expected hot pace will take a toll on speed horses) and he will need a good deal of seasoning (because that always is important in the Derby). The outsiders most likely to succeed are Rampage, who rallied effectively to win the Arkansas Derby, and Bold Arrangement, the English colt who finished third in the Blue Grass Stakes in his first American race. Wheatly Hall, the Arkansas Derby runnerup, is another longshot with an outside chance.
In view of my dismal record of picking the Kentucky Derby, I suppose my enthusiasm should be tempered with caution, but I believe Badger Land will win in a runaway. And if the winning exacta is Badger Land-Rampage or Badger Land-Bold Arrangement, I will more than make up for my last 16 years of inept handicapping at Churchill Downs.